Australia is set to return a third artwork to India in a year, with a stone Buddha statue to be repatriated after the National Gallery of Australia realised it was stolen.
The Kushan Buddha statue, dating from the second century, will soon be returned by the gallery after it emerged the piece had been stolen from an archaeological site in India, the Times of India reported.
The red sandstone Buddha, originally from the Uttar Pradesh region of India, was bought for the NGA in 2007 using funds provided by the arts benefactor Roslyn Packer.
The Kushan Buddha is the third ancient Indian artwork to be returned by the Abbott government.
Last year, the Australian prime minister used a meeting with the Indian prime minister to return a $5.6m, 900-year-old bronze dancing Shiva and a $300,000 stone carving of Shiva with Nandi to the Indian government.
Both of those artefacts were bought from the disgraced Indian art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is in prison in the US awaiting trial. But it is understood the Buddha statue was bought from another dealer.
In November, the NGA launched an investigation into the provenance of its Asian art collection, which comprises about 5,000 items.
The NGA said a preliminary assessment had earmarked 54 “significant south Asian works” for further investigation into how they ended up in the collection. It expected this work might take several years.
The NGA did not respond to a request to comment on the return of the Buddha, but in December its new director, Gerard Vaughan, called the theft of items from India “regrettable”.
The return of improperly obtained artworks has been a key part of Australian efforts to strengthen relations with India, along with initiatives such as allowing uranium sales and direct flights between the two countries.
The elections of Abbott and the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi within eight months of each other led to a warming of relations between the two nations.
In November, Modi became the first Indian prime minister in 28 years to visit Australia. He praised Abbott’s leadership and said Australia was “no longer on the periphery of our region but at the heart of our thoughts”.
An Indian government official said the National Museum in Delhi was working with the government to “effect the handover” of the Buddha, the Times of India reported.
[Image caption: Photograph: National Gallery of Australia]