"For some, these artifacts may be measured in monetary terms but for us this is beyond that. It's a part of our culture and heritage," the Prime Minister said at the ceremony held at the Blair House. Items returned included religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years, looted from some of India's most treasured religious sites.
Among the pieces returned is a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (circa 850 AD to 1250 AD) stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai, which is valued at USD1.5 million.
Also included in the collection is a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh estimated to be 1,000-year-old. The artifacts that speak to India's astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home, US Attorney General Loretta E Lynch said.
"It is my hope and the hope of the American people that this repatriation will serve as a sign of our great respect for India's culture; our deep admiration for its people; and our sincere appreciation for the ties between our nations," she said.
"Protecting the cultural heritage of our global community is important work and we are committed to identifying and returning these priceless items to their countries of origin and rightful owners," said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement.
"It's the responsibility of law enforcement worldwide to ensure criminal smuggling organizations do not profit from the theft of these culturally and historically valuable items," he said.
The majority of the pieces repatriated in the ceremony were seized during Operation Hidden Idol, an investigation that began in 2007 after Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) special agents received a tip about a shipment of seven crates destined for the US manifested as "marble garden table sets".
Examination of the shipment in question revealed numerous antiquities. This shipment was imported by Subhash Kapoor, owner of Art of the Past Gallery, who awaits trial in India.
HSI's Operation Hidden Idol focused on the activities of former New York-based art dealer Kapoor, currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars worth of rare antiquities from several nations, a media release said.
Artifacts were also found in the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex, who promptly partnered with HSI to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor. HSI special agents have executed a series of search warrants targeting Kapoor's New York City gallery, along with warehouses and storage facilities linked to the dealer. Additionally, five individuals have been arrested in the US for their role in the scheme, a media release said.