Shiva Goes Home: Australia’s Prime Minister Returns Looted Kapoor Idols to India

 

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On Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott will return two looted idols seized from Australian museums during a meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Abbott will personally deliver the National Gallery of Australia‘s $5 million Dancing Shiva and the Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ $300,000 Ardhanarishvara to Modi as a “gesture of good will” at a state reception at the Indian presidential palace, the Australian’s Michaela Boland reported in Friday’s paper (front page seen above.)

As we first revealed here a year ago, both objects were stolen from temples in India and later sold to the museums by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor, who, his gallery manager has admitted, created falsified ownership documents to hide their illicit origins.

The Australian returns mark the first major repatriations in the Kapoor case, but are unlikely to be the last. Dozens more Kapoor objects acquired by the Australian museums were sold with false ownership histories similar to those used with the returned objects. Several will likely play a prominent role in Kapoor’s criminal trial in Chennai, India, which has been on hold pending the return of the NGA’s looted Shiva. (below)

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Meanwhile, Kapoor’s international network of looters and smugglers is still being mapped by authorities in the United States, who have already seized over $100 million in art from the dealer’s Manhattan gallery and storage facilities. Federal investigators in the United States are methodically working through mountains of evidence seized from Kapoor, probing his ties to a number of American and foreign museums that did business with the dealer. Indian authorities, meanwhile, are considering a broader campaign to reclaim stolen antiquities from foreign institutions.

220-2004s-339x605_q85Over the past two years, we’ve traced hundreds of suspect Kapoor objects to museums around the world. To date, the Kapoor case has received the most attention in Australia, whose National Gallery for months stonewalled press and government inquiries and dismissed mounting evidence before agreeing to take the stolen idol off display. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a slightly more proactive approach, releasing the ownership history that Kapoor supplied for its sculpture of  Ardhanarishvara (left.) Soon after, Indian art blogger Vijay Kumar identified the temple from which the sculpture was stolen.

The idols have been in the Australian government’s possession for months, but their fate remained unclear until today. The According to The Australian, Abbott decided during a July dinner with George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Arts Minister, to present the idols to Modi during his two-day state visit to India. “Brandis told him the issue was a potential problem in the relationship between the nation­s and Mr Abbott said returning the statues would be an important statement of goodwill towards the Indian Prime Minister, elected to office in May,” the newspaper reported.

Underscoring the diplomatic importance of the returns, Abbott reportedly wanted to have his presidential plane transport the objects directly but they were too heavy and were dispatched on Wednesday by jumbo jet instead.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery officials who played a key role in acquiring the Shiva – despite the warnings of their own attorney – are quietly exiting the scene. Curator Robyn Maxwell, who handled the negotiations with Kapoor, retired quietly last month, the Australian reported. Director Ronald Radford will retire this month, his legacy tarnished by his mishandling of the case. The Art Gallery NSW’s Michael Brand, who has taken a more open approach to looting investigations in Australia and previously at the Getty, has been mentioned as a possible successor.

 

Twenty Percent: ISIS “Khums” Tax on Archaeological Loot Fuels the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq

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Early Sunday morning, a Twitter account associated with ISIS posted a horrifying photo gallery documenting the group’s destruction of religious sites.

The images show the demolition of several shrines in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS forces on June 1oth. Similar pictures and videos, touted by ISIS and its supporters via social media, have in recent months galvanized the world’s outrage and inspired rebellion in the local population.

Those dramatic images obscure a far larger and more alarming pattern of destruction, experts say: the rampant pillaging of archaeological sites across the region, with proceeds going to fund all sides in the conflict. Most recently, experts say ISIS has encouraged systematic looting of major archaeological sites in northern Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the illicit trade under the Islamic principle of Al-Khums, the Arabic word for one-fifth.

“And know ye (O’ believers) that whatever of a thing ye acquire a fifth of it is for God, and for the Apostle and for the (Apostle’s) near relatives and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer …” (8:41)

In the Koran, Allah instructs his followers to pay him one-fifth of what they acquire. While the Shia interpret this as an annual tithe on their earnings, the Sunni tradition believes it applies only to war booty. ISIS has cited Al-Khuns in ordering locals to pay one-fifth of the proceeds of looting, which they have sanctioned and overseen across the archaeologically rich northern Iraq and Syria, experts say, citing local sources.

The income from this looting tax is hard to pin down. A report in the Guardian citing flash drives seized from ISIS leadership suggested the group may have brought in as much as USD$36 million from looting in al-Nabuk area, west of Damascus. This figure seems outlandish to many experts, and has not been independently verified. But local sources tell observers that ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income.

These now-famous satellite images of Apamea, Syria hint at the scale of destruction:

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

 

While less photogenic than the demolition of shrines, experts say this wave of illicit excavations will have a more lasting impact not just on our understanding of human history, but on ISIS finances and the ability of local communities to find common ground after the conflict. In a region where ancient history is underfoot every day, the archaeological record provides one of the few glues that hold multi-ethic societies together.

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MONITORING AND PROTECTION EFFORTS

The situation has intensified efforts by governments, NGOs and foreign and local archaeologists to assess the damage and prevent further destruction to cultural heritage in the region.

In late May, UNESCO hosted an emergency experts meeting with representatives from 22 countries, including Assad’s regime and Syrian opposition groups, to discuss ways to protect heritage sites and prevent illicit trafficking. While much of the destruction in Syrian can be attributed to the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on historically important sites, participants said the focus was on the less contentious issue of looting, which has been conducted by all sides in the conflict. At the conclusion of the meeting, UNESCO agreed to establish an observatory to monitor “monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” It is unclear in the months since the meeting if progress toward the Observatory has been made. According to one participant, “No one has a plan to reach people inside of Syria.”

On the ground in Syria, groups like Association for the Protection of Syrian (APSA) are risking their lives to document the damage to cultural heritage. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center have been working with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey to train local archaeologists and museum officials to protect high-risk collections and sites, such as the Ma’arra Museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics.

The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) has signed a $600,000 agreement with the Department of State to “to comprehensively document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.” The effort will include the use of Cold-War era satellite imagery to record previously unknown archaeological sites in the region and track any subsequent destruction.

The Syria Campaign, funded by non-political Syrian expats, has gathered more than 9,000 signatures as part of a social media effort to ask the UN to ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. Heritage for Peace, based on Girona, Spain, has received funding from the Dutch government for a variety of protects to protect cultural heritage in Syria.

There are many similar efforts afoot. Please provide links to others in the comments section below.

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THREE TYPES OF THREATS

aalazm-220x260I recently spoke with Dr. Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University who is involved in several of the above efforts and is in frequent touch with Syrians who are monitoring the situation on the ground. Here’s an edited version of our discussion:

Jason Felch: What are the current threats to cultural heritage in Syria?

Amr Al-Azm: Generally speaking we can identify three types of threats.

First is intentional damage due to it being a war zone. Monuments become part of the war zone. For example, the regime air force dropping bombs on Crac de Chavealier, a world heritage site, because opposition had taken up residence in then. In Aleppo, itself a world heritage site, the regime takes up residence and the opposition tunnels underneath the building they’re in and blows up the entire building. We’ve seen severe damage to monuments like the minaret at the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, which was brought down by the regime because it was a high point. That’s one type of casualty.

Then there’s punitive damage, such as what was done to the souks in Aleppo. The burning of the souks was entirely a punitive act by the regime who had told the citizens that if they allowed their citizens to fall prey to the uprising, “we’ll destroy your livelihood.” It was one of the oldest covered bazaars in the world. Now its gone. Also punitive is ISIS blowing up shrines in Iraq and Syria. They’re trying to destroy the identity of one side or the other.

The third type is the most serious and by far the most common: archaeological looting. Its happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land. That’s the most dangerous, destructive and most widespread.a22_RTR38PMA

JF: What is driving the looting?

AA: First, there is an established historical knowledge that there is wealth to be found under the ground. In times when there is a breakdown of law and order and no authority, combined with extreme poverty, people will reach into their collective memory and someone will remember their great grandfather dug up a tomb and found a pot of silver and was able to survive the winter.

Another reason: Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it?660x39062663b27d00de1852b44033ec8a9e3c74736900a

JF: Why do you say the looting is worse that the destruction of monuments or holy sites?

AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.

Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.

JF: What evidence is there to support this?

AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.

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JF: What are the trafficking networks that move the objects out of the country to the market?

AA: My sources tell me a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back. One of the main centers for the illicit trade is Tell Abiab, on the Syrian side, across the border from Urfa. There is also lots of smuggling in Kilis, some of it archaeology. From there, I don’t know where it goes.

There is also evidence of some looting to order by wealthy private collectors. For example, in Palmyra, which is under regime control, there is a famous Roman tomb called the Brothers Tomb. I’ve been told the Tomb of the Three Brothers has been looted and sold off. My suspicion is that it’s looting to order for a collector. Something that well known and important won’t show up on the market.

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JF: What are you and others doing to stop the trade?

AA: There’s now a concerted campaign to try to talk to the main auction houses and the art dealers to persuade them not to deal with these antiquities. We’ve had fairly good progress on that front. Another thing we’re working on is setting up and training locals who are no longer employed in museums or archaeological sites because they’re not in regime areas. We’re getting them working again in a semi-formal function to protect sites and document damage. And we’re working with local activists who are out there with their cameras. One of the problems we have is revealing our sources because they’re working in a very dangerous state. So for now, much of the information they collect can’t be shared.

JF: Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?

AA: This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides.

ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated.

The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas as was a catastrophe, but it didn’t destroy the history of Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, we focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas and forget the rest. There are no big statues coming out of those sites, so we don’t see the damage. But in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence ton an industrial scale.

Boston MFA’s Provenance Research Reveals The Illicit Trade In African Antiquities

Benin altar figure

Last month the Boston Museum of Fine Arts voluntarily returned to Nigeria eight works of art — ranging from a terra-cotta Nok head dating to 500 B.C. to a wooden Kalabari memorial screen from the late 19th century — that the museum concluded had been stolen or looted.

11reed_1.rThe returns were not the result of a claim made by Nigeria but proactive research by the museum’s staff and curator of provenance Victoria Reed, who spent 18 months researching more than 300 objects bequeathed to the museum by William Teel, a wealthy benefactor and MFA overseer until his death in 2012.

africa3As part of the review, Reed also checked the provenance of 108 objects previously donated by the Teels and the rest of the museum’s African and Oceania collection. Most objects had clear title, Reed said. About five objects  remain under review, including a terra-cotta sculpture of a Pregnant Ewe from Mali that has been described as a looted fragment combined with a modern addition.

The MFA should be commended for the proactive research that led to the returns. For decades, the Boston museum bought looted antiquities and dismissed questions about those objects from foreign countries, academics and investigative reporters – showing little regard for the public trust that comes with tax-exempt status. While there is more work to be done on the MFA’s collection, the museum’s recent behavior makes clear it has turned the page on that ugly history.

To address the mistakes of the past, more museums should follow the lead of the MFA and the Dallas Museum of Art by doing what they have done with Nazi-era paintings: proactive, transparent research into the provenance their antiquities collections.

THE AFRICAN TRADE

The Nigerian returns shed light on a branch of the illicit antiquities trade that receives relatively little attention: African art, which in the United States grew in popularity in the 1980s and – after many countries in the region had passed laws to protect their cultural heritage.

The MFA’s research concluded that all eight objects had been looted, stolen or removed from Nigeria without government permission, at times using what appeared to be falsified documents.

Oron EkpuOne of the objects was an Oron ancestral figure, or ekpu, that survived the Biafran war and was in the Oron museum as of 1970.  In 2001, Teel’s records show the figure was acquired by Galerie Walu in Zurich, Switzerland, now owned by Jean David. It was accompanied by a document stating that the National Commission of Museums and Monuments had waived Nigeria’s ownership right to the object. The MFA contacted the commission and found that was not the case, suggesting the document was falsified. In an email, David said the object was sold by his father from his private collection, not through the gallery. David said he continues to research questions about the authenticity of the documents and has offered to get back to me with additional information.

Teel 374A 13th century Yoruba portrait head sold to the Teels by Montreal gallery Lovart International was said to have been in a private collection by 1980. But the MFA’s research suggests that a document allegedly signed by the former Director General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments is not authentic. The gallery could not be reached for comment.

Teel 360The Teel’s Nok terracotta head (right) dating perhaps as early as 500 B.C. was said to have been found near Kaduna State, Nigeria and taken to Europe, where it was acquired by the dealer Marc Leo Felix in Brussels. In March, 1994, Felix sold it to the Teels. Felix has not yet responded to my questions about the object.

THE DAVIS GALLERY

The remaining five objects returned by the MFA came through the Davis Gallery in New Orleans. The gallery is owned by Charles Davis, a leading seller of African art since the 1970s.

A brass altar figure from the Benin people, seen at the top of his post, was apparently stolen from an ancestral altar in the Royal Palace of Benin City before the Davis Gallery acquired it in 1997. As the MFA states, “Although the figure was accompanied by documentation that appeared to authorize its sale by the chief of the guild of Benin City’s brasscasters, or Igun Eronmwon, inconsistencies within the bill of sale, as well as recent correspondence from the office of the Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, have cast doubts upon the authenticity of this document.” An 18th century Edo head, below, was also acquired by the gallery in 1990 from the Benin brass casters.

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In 1994 the gallery sold a 2,000-year-old Nok sculpture (below) to the Teels on behalf of a dealer named Charles Jones. “Although documentation that appears to authorize the export of this object from Nigeria was issued in 1994, recent correspondence from the office of the Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, has cast doubts upon this document’s authenticity,” the museum found.

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I recently spoke with Charles Davis about the MFA’s returns and his role in the market for African art over the years.

Charles and Kent Davis

In the early 1970s, Davis was the director of a Virginia zoo. He and his wife Kent discovered tribal art while traveling across Africa in a Land Rover taking photos. “We traded with the pygmies, with tribes in Zaire,” he recalled. “We didn’t have money so we traded our clothes.”

Over the years, Davis “cultivated friendships with tribal people, traders, and African dealers and began to bring out fabulous objects,” recalled William Fagaly, the New Orleans Museum of Art curator of African Art, in an interview with Antiques magazine. “At that point, everybody stood up and took notice and in short order he became a dealer’s dealer, supplying work to the big boys who dominated the trade.”

Davis Gallery

The business of African art was slow until the 1980s, when the opening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art put it on the map, Davis said. “When the Met anointed it as fine art in 1981 by opening the Rockefeller Wing, the U.S. recognized it as fine art. Other than that it was worthless.” (Needless to say, parts of the Rockefeller Collection were gathered under questionable circumstances.)

Davis estimates he has sold some 10,000 African objects over the years, acquired during more than 150 buying trips to Africa. He says he’s been out of the African art business since 2005, when Katrina devastated his adopted home of New Orleans, where he operates the Davis Gallery out of his 1845 Greek Revival mansion (above) on the banks of the Mississippi. The business of African art has now largely moved to Paris and Brussels, he says.

Asked about the MFA’s returns, Davis is philosophical.

“I’ll take the hit,” he said. “I knew it was coming. I knew we were getting politically correct that nothing should be exported, and the people be damned.”

I think the MFA has made a mistake,” he said. “To see American institutions to return a lot of the material in this political atmosphere….is going to be disastrous for these objects.” He notes unrest in the region:the terrorist group Boko Haram is active in the area; and during the Biafran war of the late 1960s, he said, a large part of the museum in Oron was looted.

“This is African language,” he said. “Africa never had a real written language. Their art was their way of communicating. There are great notions like abstraction that we’ve learned from. To deny this to the rest of world would be a travesty. Without these wonderful objects, without the story being told, there would be no Pablo Picasso. To put prohibition on these things is a step way over the line.”

Besides, he said, the trade in African art has greatly benefitted Africans. “The word stolen and looted is incorrect. I’ve seen Sotheby’s catalogs in remote villages. These things are sold as free expressions of their culture. They culminate in very high prices for these objects. They’re very aware of what these things are worth. Dealers like me have pumped millions of millions into Africa so they can buy the medicine they need. It’s a big enterprise and I’m proud that Africans have done extremely well. This is a renewable resource for Africa. People in Africa are very happy with the ability to sell things and realize a great benefit.”

How does Davis explain the falsified documents that apparently came with his objects? “A lot of these items have been sold by government officials. I’ve worked with very high officials who claimed to have the right to do so. I have provided those letters to people when I sold the objects.”

One of the pieces, a set of Kalabari screen figures (seen above), dates from the late 19th century, he said. “There were three wooden figures owned by men’s association. They were totally not used and discarded. Someone from that region realized these people wanted to sell them and they did…they worked their way through the pipeline to me. You can return all the archaeologics you want. But to have something as recent as 20 years ago decaying, to have that returned doesn’t make sense.”

Who was this middleman? “I don’t want to name the middleman…he was a government official, a member of Parliament….I’m going to protect my sources because philosophically I think they’ve done the world a great service. We’re trying to make sure these objects will survive millennia.”

A Campaign of Repatriation

Despite his opposition to the MFA’s returns, Davis says he firmly believes many archaeological objects now in Western collections should eventually be returned to Africa. In the 1980s, he said he proposed a massive campaign of repatriation of antiquities to Mali.

“I wrote a book called Animal Motif. I worked hand in glove with the Musée national du Mali. They told me the French were going to help them build a museum, so I went to see Susan Vogel,” a leading Africanist in the United States.

Davis says he proposed setting up a non-profit foundation so that American collectors could return their objects while receiving a tax benefit. “If clients could donate back to the country of origin and get a tax write-off they would go for it. I think it would be a good program. They can go back to encourage collectors to donate back to the country of origin, rather than having art seized and repatriated.”

But Vogel and other American museum curators discouraged him. “She thought it would not be workable,” he recalled. “Let’s watch and wait,” she told him. Others said: Repatriation to Africa is not advised…The only thing that matters is the conservation of this art.”

“We’ve been watching and waiting ever since,” Davis said. “Maybe nows the time to do it.”

Would he support such an effort?

“I’m behind it 100%. It would be nice if there’s a tax incentive to do it. I think here could be a worldwide program to encourage us to do that…I would be first to do it.”

SCOOP: Bowers Museum will return 500+ Thai antiquities seized during 2008 raids

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

On the front page of this month’s The Art Newspaper I report that the Bowers Museum of Art has agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. The objects were allegedly looted from one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and smuggled into the United States by an antiquities trafficking ring that was broken up in 2008.

The Bowers will also forfeit 71 Native American ladles were allegedly taken from federal or native lands in the United States. The Bowers acquired the ladles and Thai antiquities from Robert Olson, an alleged smuggler who I profiled in 2008. Olson has admitted buying illegally excavated objects from looters and middlemen and bragged that his collection Ban Chiang artifacts and Native American ladles were the largest in the world. He currently faces a December trial on federal charges in Los Angeles.

The returns mark additional fallout from the 2008 federal raids on several Southern California museums. (Our previous coverage can be found here.) From the story:

The returns are the result of a non-prosecution agreement between the museum and the Los Angeles US Attorney’s office stemming from federal museum raids carried out in 2008. Following a five-year undercover operation, federal agents seized hundreds of allegedly looted antiquities at the Bowers, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum. The authorities were investigating an alleged smuggling network that funneled looted Thai, Cambodian and Burmese artefacts into local museums, often through tax-deductible donations based on inflated appraisals, court records show.

In exchange for the returns to Thailand, government prosecutors agreed not to criminally charge anyone at the Bowers, the museum’s lawyer says.

“The Bowers Museum is pleased to have resolved this matter without any finding that the museum violated any law,” says Manuel Abascal. “The Bowers stopped collecting archaeological items years ago, and has instead focused on bringing important archaeological items from foreign museums to the United States for exhibition, such as the Terracotta Warriors.” Abascal says the museum had offered to return the objects years ago. “Since Armand Labbé died, it’s been in our basement. We’re more than happy to give it up,” he says. “We never conceded it was taken in an ill-gotten way.”

Most of the contested objects – many of which which are not of display quality but have cultural and archaeological importance – come from Ban Chiang, a Neolithic settlement and burial site that was continuously occupied from 1500BC to 900BC, making it one of the most important prehistoric settlements found in Southeast Asia. Thai law has claimed state ownership of all artefacts since 1961, a claim that would be recognized under American law if certain conditions are met.

Bowers donations

Since the 2008 raids, the fate of the seized objects at the Bowers and other museums have remained in limbo while the case inches through the legal process. Last year I reported on mounting frustration that little had resulted from the dramatic federal raids.

No other museums tied to the case have returned the contested objects, though some have tried:

 At the Pacific Asia Museum, 147 objects donated by various clients linked to the case remain in storage under “constructive custody” of federal authorities, a museum official said.

“The museum has not been told to return the articles,” says the interim deputy director Susana Smith Bautista. “Because [US authorities] retain ‘constructive custody’ of these works, the objects cannot leave the museum premises without written permission.”

The Mingei Museum offered to return 67 objects seized by federal authorities soon after the raids, says the museum’s attorney, Jerry Coughlan: “We have heard nothing other than a request that we continue to hold them.”

A lawyer for the Los Angeles County Museum, which has about 60 objects that were targeted in the raids, declined to comment.

The Bowers allegations were described in detailed search warrant affidavits released at the time of the raids.

The court records portray Armand Labbé, the museum’s longtime chief curator, as a willing participant in the alleged smuggling scheme, which orchestrated the donation of looted antiquities in exchange for inflated tax write-offs for donors. Labbe built much of the Ban Chiang collection with donations from clients of alleged smuggler Robert Olson, an antiquities dealer, according to the search warrant affidavits.

In a September 2003 meeting described in the affidavits, the undercover agent met Labbé at Olson’s storage locker. The curator pointed out several objects he wanted donated, and instructed the agent to pay Olson in cash for the objects and state that he had owned them for more than a year, as required to receive a tax write-off of their stated value.

Olson told the agent that he was getting objects directly from Ban Chiang, the affidavits say, and showed Labbé and the agent photos of the sites from which the objects had recently been excavated. On another occasion, Olson is alleged to have boasted that he had more Ban Chiang material than Thailand and said a client of his had donated some $250,000 worth to the Bowers.

The agent paid Olson $12,000 for the Ban Chiang objects and received an appraisal that put their value at more than $43,000. Labbé accepted that and a second donation from the agent before he died in April 2005.

In September of that year, the agent spoke with Keller, the director of the Bowers, about making a third donation. Keller said he knew Olson and had been to his warehouse, but refused to accept the donation. Labbé’s girlfriend, an appraiser, told the agent that Keller had personally donated to the museum on several occasions, the affidavits say.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy  of his monograph,  Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand, during her visit to Los Angeles.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy of his monograph, “Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand”, during her visit to Los Angeles.

The story details several indictments in the case that have been unsealed in recent months:

Olson was criminally indicted in 2008 along with Jonathan Markell, a Los Angeles gallery owner who arranged the donation of Ban Chiang objects to several museums. The indictment, which was only unsealed in January of this year, accused the men of one count of conspiracy to import antiquities from Burma and Cambodia and three counts of making false statements on customs forms.

In July 2003, both men allegedly travelled to Thailand to purchase the looted antiquities. The objects were listed on customs forms at 25% of their actual purchase price, and the objects were falsely described, with an ancient Burmese Buddha listed as a “wooden sitting man”, the indictment alleges.

Markell and his wife Cari were indicted in 2010 on federal tax charges that related to their alleged role in writing inflated appraisals of donations of Ban Chiang material to the museums. An attorney for Jonathan Markell declined to comment, and his wife’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Olson was separately indicted in 2012 with Marc Pettibone. Pettibone is an American living in Thailand who, the indictment alleges, bought the Ban Chiang antiquities directly from “diggers” and shipped them to Olson by bribing Thai officials. Both were charged with the transportation, possession and importation of stolen antiquities.

Olson could not be reached, and his federal public defender declined to make any comment. He has previously said he bought antiquities in Thailand but did not act illegally. Pettibone, who is being sought by the authorities, could not be reached by time of going to press.

Read the complete story “Victory for Thailand in US” on The Art Newspaper’s site here. Here are copies of those recently unsealed indictments:

USA vs. Robert Olson and Jonathan Markell

USA vs. Jonathan and Cari Markell

 

 

 

UPDATED > Singapore Sling: The Asian Civilizations Museum Paid Kapoor More Than $1 million

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UPDATE: In response to this report, the Asian Civilizations Museum confirmed our accounting and released information on a few objects we missed, including six additional paintings purchased for $100,000 and a 10th century stone Nandi purchased for $55,000. That brings the total paid to dealer Subhash Kapoor to more than $1.3 million. The museum has yet to release any information on the provenance for the ancient objects.

nandiSingapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum bought more than $1 million of art from disgraced Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, according to business records from Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery.

Invoices that Kapoor sent to the ACM between 1997 and 2010 detail more than two dozen objects he sold, including nine antiquities of unclear provenance. (Kapoor also sold Indian manuscripts and paintings that to date have not be the subject of law enforcement investigations. Our complete Kapoor coverage here.) Most of the invoices were directed to the ACM’s former senior curator for South Asia, Dr. Gauri Krishnan. Krishnan is now director of the Indian Heritage Centre at Singapore’s National Heritage Board. The ACM did not respond to a request for comment.

M5354newhfLast December we reported that the ACM’s sculpture of Uma Parameshvari was stolen from the Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur District in 2005 or 2006, according to the court records filed with the guilty plea of Kapoor’s gallery manager Aaron Freedman.

In January, the ACM acknowledged it had purchased a total of 30 objects from Kapoor, who currently stands trial in India for trafficking 18 idols stolen at his request from local temples. The ACM did not name the objects, detail their provenance or disclose the price the museum had paid for them.

Now we can.

Amaravathi_stupaIn October 1997, Kapoor billed the ACM $22,500 for a 3rd Century limestone fragment from Amaravati, South India. “Examples from the Amaravait stuppa are extremely rare to find,” Kapoor wrote in text accompanying the sale. “This particular piece does not come from the stuppa proper, but from the outer rail copings that surrounded the stuppa. It is an exceptional example in both its size and in its illustrative qualities…The iconography of this fragment makes this a most interesting piece from the Amaravati area.”

standing_buddha_nagaiLater that same month, Kapoor sold the ACM a copper 11th Century Standing Buddha from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu for $15,000. Nagapattinam was an important center for Buddhism in South India,” he noted in the text. “Material from this area is extremely rare to find, and especially in such fine condition. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has an example which is slightly larger, but remains in a much inferior condition (vol.2 fig.140b). This example, though, is extremely crisp and well articulated.”lion_kanuj

Chamudi

In February 1998, Kapoor sold the ACM an 11th Century sandstone Crouching Lion (above) from Kanoj, Uttar Padesh for $35,000 and an 11th century stone Goddess Camunda (right) from Rajshahi, Bangladesh priced at $25,000. After a $5,000 discount, the total invoice was for $55,000. The goddess had previously been published in Leaves of the Bodhi Tree (#24).

That same month, Kapoor billed the ACM $9,500 for Hindoo Costumes, an album of 14 paintings from South India. Kapoor said the previous owner of the album was Sofia Anna Woolfe. In March 1999, Kapoor sold the ACM two 19th century watercolors from Tanjore for $6,000.

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An Art of the Past invoice dated April 2002 shows the ACM bought three ancient rattles from Kapoor for $10,000. The rattles (above) depict a seated man with bare belly, a boy seated with ball, and a seated man.

In July 2006, Kapoor provided ACM with a letter of provenance for a late 18th century altar from Goa with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The letter claims the altar had belonged to the parents of Selina Mohamed, Kapoor’s girlfriend. Mohamed claimed her parents acquired the altar in the 1960s and gifted it to her in 1992. (For reasons that are not clear, Kapoor did not send an invoice for the altar until February 2009, when he billed the ACM $135,000.)

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Mohamed was indicted by US authorities in December 2013 on four counts of possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy. Court records allege she fabricated false ownership histories for dozens of objects sold by Kapoor.

In February 2007, Kapoor sold the ACM the 11th century bronze Chola sculpture of Uma Parameshvari mentioned above. The price, after a $100,000 “discount,” was $650,000. The Uma had appeared in Art of the Past’s 2006 catalog. The ACM’s former curator Gauri Parimoo Krishnan has described the sculpture as one of the museum’s most prized artifacts, and it is featured prominently in museum promotional materials.

In a separate invoice that month, Kapoor specified the price ACM paid for ten additional objects:

1

Jina Rishabhanatha, M5378 South India, late 18th – early 19th century

25,000.00

2

Guru Garanth Sahib, M5831 Manuscript Punjab, Lahore, 19th century

15,000.00

3

Folio from a Mahabharata Series, P2458 South India, Seringpatnam, circa 1670Gouache and gold on paper

25,000.00

4

Adulation of Shri Nath-ji P2727 Rajasthan, Nathdawara, circa 1870

12,000.00

5

The Siege of Lanka P3009 Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

75,000.00

6

Rama and His Army Crossing to Lanka P3014 Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

75,000.00

7

Guru Nanak Dev with Bala and Mardana P0811 Deccan, circa 1700-1720 Gouache and gold on paper

9,000.00

8

Ram,Lakshman, Sita in River P3010
Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

50,000.00

9

Ram Lskshman Leaving P3012
Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

60,000.00

10

Mica Muharram Procession P1847 Delhi or Jaipur 19th century

3,500.00

Total

349,500.00

Discountover 31%

109,500.00

Final Total

240,000.00

Also in February 2007, Kapoor provided the ACM with a guarantee for the authenticity and provenance “of all artwork sold.” “If in the future the verity of either their provenance or authenticity is legally questioned and found to be incorrect, I nearby promise to reimburse the Asian Civilization Museum for the cost paid…” In April 2007, Kapoor billed the ACM $12,381 for the customs duties for the shipment of nine paintings an one manuscript, most likely the ones listed above.

In Dec, 2009, Kapoor billed the ACM 37,500 for three $30,000 for two watercolors on gold paper. (Change reflects statement by ACM.)

The total value of the ACM’s acquisitions from Kapoor: $1,328,250. 

 

Given the ACM’s extensive dealings with Kapoor, the Singapore museum should immediately release the provenance documents for all the antiquities it acquired from the dealer and proactively reach out to Indian and American investigators.

Our gratitude to Vijay Kumar for supplying several images of the Kapoor objects on display in the ACM. Readers can follow developments in the Kapoor case at Kumar’s website Poetry in Stone.   

UPDATED > Rebuilding Koh Ker: A 3D Reconstruction Restores Context to a Looted Khmer Temple

UPDATE 5/6/14: The Norton Simon Museum and Christie’s auction house have agreed to return two additional sculptures looted from the Praset Chen temple at Koh Ker, Cambodia, the New York Times reports. The Norton Simon’s Bhima has been on display since the 1970s. Christies sold a looted sculpture of Pandava twice, most recently in 2009, and bought the sculpture back from the anonymous buyer when information emerged about its looted origins. They are the fourth and fifth objects from the looted temple to be returned. Two additional sculptures from the site remain on display at the Denver Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.  

Cambodia is quietly negotiating the return of several important 10th century sculptures that were looted from the temple complex of Koh Ker in the 1970s.

Bhima at Norton SimonOfficials from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena recently traveled to Phnom Penh to discuss the fate of its looted Bhima (right). “We have met and had constructive conversations that are continuing,” said Luis Li, an attorney for the museum. Several other museums are also in talks with Cambodia about objects in their collections.

Koh Ker was the source of several iconic Khmer sculptures that were looted in the 1970s and sold to prominent museums and collectors. We’ve previously written about ties between the looters and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The most famous of these stolen masterpieces is the Bhima’s companion, Duryodhana, which Sotheby’s attempted to auction in March 2012 on behalf of a Belgian collector. After a lengthy legal fight, Sotheby’s agreed to return the sculpture to Cambodia last December. Months earlier, the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return two Kneeling Attendants looted from the same site. Additional sculptures from the site have been identified at The Cleveland Museum and the Denver Museum of Art. [Complete coverage here.]

This New York Times graphic shows their original locations in the ruined temple of Prasat Chen:

NYT graphic of Koh KerWhile the returns are being negotiated by Cambodian authorities, archaeologists with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) have been busy reconstructing the Koh Ker temples with the tools of virtual reality. By sewing together thousands of digital pictures of the sculptures into 3D images, they’ve re-created their original context in the now ruined temples. At EFEO’s website you can watch a remarkable video showing what the site might have looked like soon after its construction by Jayavarman IV.

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One of those behind this work – and some of the original detective work that linked them to the temple – is French archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau. He graduated from the Sorbonne with degrees in Archaeology and Oriental Studies. His 2005 Phd was entitled “Indianization and Formation of the State in South-East Asia: A reappraisal of the Historiography of the last Thirty Years.” He has been a lecturer at the EFEO since 2007.

Here’s my Q and A with Bourdonneau.

Q: How did you become involved in the case involving the Duryodhana at Sotheby’s?

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Let’s talk first about the Bhima statue at the Norton Simon Foundation.* As far as I know, the connection between the Prasat Chen and this statue (published in Bunker and Latchford 2004) seems to have been made for the first time by a member of the GACP team (a stone conservation German project) who sent a short letter to Unesco in 2007 (I was informed about this letter quite late in 2011). Personally, I saw the pedestal of the statue during the first archaeological campaign I made in Koh Ker in 2009. I made also the connection with the Norton Simon statue that I identified then as a statue of a fighting Bhima … and so concluded that the other pedestal close at hand was for a Duryodhana. But, at that time, I didn’t know of any image of this Duryodhana.

The feet of the disputed statue were left behind when it was taken from the ruins of the Prasat Chen Temple, 80 miles east of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The other feet belong to a statue now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, experts say.

The feet of the Duryodhana and the Norton Simon’s Bhima in situ in Koh Ker.

I saw it for the first time at the end of 2010 when I presented my work to my colleagues of Guimet Museum, Pierre Baptiste and Thierry Zéphir. They showed me a photo of this statue, a photo that was in the Museum Archives but with no information about its origin, its identification or its localization. The next step was just one week before the sale in New York (March 2011). I was informed almost by accident (I was probably the last one to be informed among those concerned by the sale…). Ironically it was a collector that told me that a statue of “Koh Ker style” would be on sale. I prepared straight after a report (with photos, dimensions and iconographical “demonstration”) and sent it to Unesco office in Phnom Penh (where people were wondering about the authenticity and the provenance of this statue) and this report, I was told, was immediately transmitted to Cambodian Ministry of Culture.

I also made several presentations since 2009 and published a quite long article in 2011 where I explained why these statues should be identified with the two images of Bhima and Duryodhana at Prasat Chen and why there was little doubt that the two “Met pieces” (the Pandava brothers), among others, came from the same building.gopura_II

Q: How did you ultimately make the match between the sculpture and its feet?

The abandoned feet at Koh Ker superimposed on the Temple Warrior at the Norton Simon, from a report to UNESCO by researcher Simon Warrack.

The abandoned feet at Koh Ker superimposed on the Temple Warrior at the Norton Simon, from a report to UNESCO by researcher Simon Warrack.

It is not so difficult. The position, the style, the dimensions (e.g. dimensions of the breaks at the ankles, taken in situ) left not much doubt. It is a little more difficult to show that such a statue could come only from Prasat Chen and not from another temple. The iconographic analysis is essential for that.

Q: Have you found any other matches to objects missing from Koh Ker or other Cambodian sites? Where are these objects today? 

1970_17There are indeed a quite significant number of similar cases. The most obvious are those for which where we have photos in the archives: for example, the Ganesha from Prasat Bak or the lion (right) from the Shiva pedestal in Prasat Thom (and today in Dallas Museum). Many of them are now in private collections so it is not easy to know their current location. At least it is possible to know when and where they were sold thanks to sale catalogues published by auction houses.

Q: The Duryodhana and the Met’s Kneeling Attendants have been returned. Others may soon follow. Where will these objects be displayed in Cambodia? What significance does this have for the local people? 

I have no precise information about this. But, of course, they will be exhibited. You better have to ask to Cambodians themselves. Obviously they have many reasons to be proud of their heritage and to celebrate the return of these remarkable pieces. It is important to remind what we are talking about: a deliberate destruction that did not care about the integrity of the artworks, provided that there were people ready to purchase them.

The state of conservation of these artworks in stone was remarkably good as they were still buried when looted. It is maybe not useless to say again, as Elizabeth Becker rightly wrote in NY Times, that the fury of the Khmer Rouge was, sadly, directed much more against people than stones: in Koh Ker, the only traces of vandalism, of which there are many, ­are those left by the modern looters whose spoils fed the art market (some of them can be seen on the knees of the two “MET statues”, cut hastily and coarsely from their pedestals with dozens of blows of a chisel).

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It is hardly understandable how the purchasers of the objects could be “rescuers” working for the protection of heritage, as it has been said. As you know, they actually were those to whom the damaged statues were destined and the unique raison d’être of this vandalism. For this same reason, they are certainly not working for a better “understanding of Khmer culture.”

The so-called Sotheby’s or MET statues, like many of their kind extracted from their original surroundings, have remained impossible to understand as long as we have not been able to replace them in the temples where they were erected, that is, as long as we have not restored what was destroyed forty or thirty years ago by the looters.

What is at stake here is not only “heritage” but history.

pandava_decapites2

*We’ve edited Eric’s response to make clear he was referring here to the Bhima, not the Duryodhana.

Reckless: In Pursuit of Shiva, the National Gallery of Australia Ignored the Advice of Its Attorney

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The National Gallery of Australia ignored the advice of its own attorney when buying the $5 million bronze sculpture of Shiva, according to a damning confidential document uncovered by the Australian documentary program Four Corners, which aired an hour-long investigation of the case on Monday.

The Shiva was taken off display Wednesday, some ten months after we first published evidence that it had been stolen from an Indian temple in 2006. Australian authorities are now preparing to return it and another Shiva sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to India, where Subhash Kapoor, the dealer who supplied them, is facing criminal trial. (Our complete coverage of the Kapoor case is here.)

imgresWeeks before acquiring the Shiva in 2008, the NGA consulted with Australian solicitor Shane Simpson, an expert on art law. Simpson prepared a 12-page legal memo that cautioned NGA officials about the considerable risks of acquiring the sculpture.

The Shiva’s documentation was “at best, thin,” Simpson said in the brief, and there was an “inherent risk in the purchase.” He called the available information “minimal” and described the NGA’s due diligence investigation as “inadequate.”

“There is no evidence that provides any clue as to the origin of the object,” Simpson noted. Among the four likely possibilities he listed: “stolen from the original source (e.g. a temple)” and “unlawfully excavated.” Likewise, the museum had no information as to when the object was exported from India. “The absence of official documentation suggests that the object was exported without compliance” with India’s national patrimony laws of 1959 and 1972.

shiva.kapoor

“There must be a much deeper enquiry made before title can be confirmed,” Simpson urged. Among the specific steps that Simpson said the museum should take:

  • Contact the India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which monitors the illicit trade, and Indian diplomatic officials to see if they objected to the purchase.
  • Ask Raj Mehgoub, the alleged former owner, to provide documentation on the Shiva’s legal export from India.
  • Ask Kapoor for documents about his purchase of the Shiva from Mehgoub.
  • Confer with leading Indian experts on Chola art

The NGA appears to have taken none of these steps, and acquired the Shiva weeks later.

Presciently, Simpson warned the NGA that the guarantee provided by Kapoor was of limited value because “…that promise is still only as good as the continued existence of the firm and its liquidity at the time such a claim is made.” As we first reported in February, the NGA has filed a lawsuit against Kapoor seeking to recover its $5 million that will likely be undermined by this very fact. It is likely futile for the very reasons Simpson stated.

Simpson’s brief failed to raise what was perhaps the most obvious concern: that the provenance documents supplied by Kapoor had been forged. Indeed, Simpson stated he had “a high degree of certainty” that there could be no successful claim based on the 1970 UNESCO treaty or India’s 1972 law because the Shiva had likely left India before they were enacted. This was a glaring overstatement that likely gave the NGA a false sense of security. In fact, the Shiva left India illicitly in 2006 and both those treaties have been cited in India’s demand the sculpture be returned, according to a March 26 press release from Australia’s attorney general.

NGA’s Due Diligence Memo 

imgres-1Monday’s Four Corners program was largely based on information uncovered over the past year in a joint investigation carried out by myself; Indian art aficionado Vijay Kumar of Singapore; arts reporter Michaela Boland of The Australian; journalist R. Srivathsan of The Hindu. The earliest work on the Kapoor case was done by antiquities trade researcher Damien Huffer, who provided me with essential help early on. I was interviewed for the program, but the work of my other colleagues was not credited, as it should have been.

That said, the Four Corners team did uncover new information, including a detailed accounting of the NGA’s due diligence that the museum provided confidentially to George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Minister for the Arts.

The due diligence memo reveals the provenance for all 22 works of art that the NGA acquired from Kapoor between 2002 and 2011 for $11 million, and 11 additional Kapoor objects now on loan to the museum.

Among the revelations:

Rah MehgoubFive of the 22 objects were said to have come from Raj Mehgoub, whose humble lifestyle we’ve described previously. The NGA was apparently untroubled by the fact that the supposed owner of a $30 million art collection lived in a Philadelphia duplex worth just $83,000.

Selina MohamedThree of the objects cited the previous owner as Salina Mohamed, Kapoor’s longtime girlfriend. In December, Mohamed was charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy. Prosecutors say she was involved in the fabrication of fake ownership histories for Kapoor’s stolen objects.

Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager donated eleven paintings and a lithograph to American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, an U.S. non-profit that acts as a pass-thru for donations to the museum. Sager was named, but not charged, in a criminal case filed in New York against Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen.

PusunamyOne object reportedly came from another of Kapoor’s ex-girlfriends, Paramaspry Punusamy, the owner of Dalhousie Enterprises and Jazmin Asian Arts in Singapore. Punsamy is reported to have triggered the Kapoor investigation after falling out with him over a lawsuit in 2009.

stephen.markelKapoor claimed to have consulted with several leading Asian art experts, including Stephen Markel (left), curator of Asian art of LACMA, which acquired 62 objects from Kapoor and has had other alleged entanglements with the illicit trade; Robert Knox, the former keeper of Asian art at the British Museum; Vidya Dehejia, a professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University.

On the Shiva acquisition, the NGA has long claimed it consulted with a leading Indian expert who had given his blessing for the acquisition. The museum has refused to name the expert, but Four Corners identified him as Dr. Ramachandran Nagaswamy, a leading authority on Chola bronzes.

One problem: Dr. Nagaswamy says he has “absolutely no recollection” of ever speaking with anyone at the NGA.

Here is the full NGA report, including Simpson’s brief, as published by Four Corners:

UPDATED > Radford Speaks, RETIRES: Director of Australia’s National Gallery Is In Denial

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UPDATE 3/21: Ron Radford announced he will retire from the National Gallery of Australia when his current term expires at the end of September. “Mr Radford has overseen a massive expansion of the gallery to include new wings of Indigenous art, reports ABC. “But his time in the top job has also been marred by scandal, with the gallery purchasing a statue from an art dealer that is now alleged to have been looted from a temple in India.” More coverage of the move here and here.

Ron Radford, the embattled director of the National Gallery of Australia, sat down last week for his first media TV interview since the Subhash Kapoor scandal broke. He likely wishes now he hadn’t.

Radford’s stumbling performance and reality-defying denials already have some leading experts questioning his ability to lead Australia’s premiere national museum. “The gallery’s council must surely question whether the director can remain in place,”  University of Sydney law professor Duncan Chappell told the Australian.

What did Radford say? First, he said he was still not convinced the museum’s $5 million Shiva was stolen. “I think it is by no means clear yet,” he said. “I think we just have to wait for the outcome of the courts in that regard.”

Shiva Natraja1

His skepticism flies in the face of his museum’s own lawsuit against Kapoor claiming it was duped; Radford’s December offer to seek avenues for the Shiva’s restitution to India; the Australian Attorney General’s stated urgency to resolve the case; the guilty plea of Kapoor’s gallery manager Aaron Freeman, who admitted forging the Shiva’s false provenance and detailed its path from an Indian temple to New York; the indictment of Kapoor’s girlfriend and sister for allegedly forging provenance documents and holding stolen art; a detailed criminal investigation by Indian authorities that since 2009 has publicly named the alleged thieves who stole the Shiva; Vijay Kumar’s careful analysis of the links between the stolen Shiva and the one at the NGA; and our first report last June showing the Shiva in the house of the alleged temple thief who stole it.

Radford also staunchly defended the museum’s investigation of the bogus ownership history that Kapoor supplied for the Shiva, which claimed it had been in the private New York collection of a woman named Raj Mehgoub. “We did everything that was humanly possible,” Radford told ABC’s Anne Maria Nicholson. “The negotiations went on for a year as we were testing whether it had been stolen from anywhere or its provenance and we were checking all of that with great thoroughness. We went through about eight different processes before we bought it.”

If anything, the Kapoor scandal has highlighted his museum’s “rigour,” Radford said. In fact, the case highlights the NGA’s stunning lack of curiosity about the Shiva’s former owner, whom they never contacted. We’ve previously detailed the flaws of each of those steps. And as we show below, even the most basic research into Raj Magoub would have raised immediate red flags. “It was a cosmetic search at best,” Chappel told the ABC, “and one that certainly we now know was somewhat naive as well.”

Finally, Radford suggested that a definitive match could not be made with the poor quality photos posted online by India authorities. To our knowledge, the NGA has not bothered to obtain high-quality photos taken of the Shiva by the IFP Pondicherry in Nov. 1994. If they had, they’d see the match is indisputable.

Here is the NGA’s Shiva on display today:

NGA shiva

Here is an IFP image of the Shiva in the Sivan Temple in 1994, released to The Hindu:  IFP Shiva

As the Hindu reported Sunday, using those photos Indian authorities have identified seven distinct features that demonstrate the match:

idol_1781732f

Radford’s still not convinced.

Why not? He makes vague mention of “a lot of stories floating round.” He has a point – curiously, there are not one but two false stories of the statue’s ownership history.

A Tale of Two Fake Provenances

In our first post on the Shiva last June, we said that Kapoor created a false provenance claiming he had purchased the Shiva in Oct. 2004 from a collector in Washington DC. Here is a copy of that false provenance:

Shiva DC provenanceThe NGA’s lawsuit against Kapoor revealed that the dealer provided the museum with a different false provenance: one listing Raj Mehgoub and her husband Abdulla as the former owners: 

shiva prov mehboug

Other records — including photos showing the Shiva in India in 2006 and shipping documents detailing the sculpture’s departure from India on Nov. 25, 2006, its arrival in New York and subsequent passage to Australia in 2007 — make clear that both of these stories are fictitious. But why did Kapoor create two versions?

Sources suggest the signature of the Washington D.C. collector, who had previously sold a painting to Kapoor, was initially used to forge a provenance that covered the illicit origins of the Shiva. Later that cover story was discarded as unlikely to hold up to scrutiny, and Kapoor and his staff created a second provenance document for the Shiva attributing it to the Magoub Collection.

As it happens, the NGA’s Shiva was not the only pricey antiquity which Kapoor claimed to have purchased from the private collection of Raj Mehgoub. Her name is listed as the prior owner of at least seven additional objects sold by Kapoor. The total value of those objects exceeds $30 million.

The NGA acquired at least three objects from the “Mehgoub Collection” prior to the Shiva, records show. In Nov. 2003 the museum paid $125,000 for a seated Gina that was said to come from Mehgoub. In 2006, the NGA paid $247,000 for a Gadharan Bodhisattva from Mehgoub. And in 2008, the museum paid $175,000 for a Monumental Alam from Mehboug.

Who is Raj Mehgoub?

Raj MehgoubSo, who is this wealthy collector Raj Mehgoub who kept millions of dollars worth of antiquities in her home? For starters, she is a real person. In public records, her name is spelled Raj Mahgoub. She has lived in blue-collar neighborhoods of Queens, New York for decades, with a brief stint outside Philadelphia. Perhaps coincidentally, her Facebook profile shows she has many friends or family members with the last name Kapoor.

Radford said the NGA’s “everything that was humanly possible” investigation included confirming her address using Google Earth. The NGA would have found Mahgoub lived in this small brick duplex on Millbank Rd. in Upper Darby, PA, a working class suburb outside of Philadelphia:

Magoub Philly

Public records show the house was valued at $83,000 when it sold in 2005 – two years after Mahgoub supposedly signed the letter of provenance for the Shiva. Why would the owner of $30 million of ancient art live in a duplex worth $83,000?

After selling the Philadelphia house, Mahgoub moved back to Queens, New York, where she had lived since the late 1980s, records show. Given that she had begun selling off her valuable antiquities collection, one might have expected an upgrade. But her Queens residence today is an apartment in this nondescript brick high-rise.

9910 60th Ave Queens

Radford acknowledged that neither he nor his staff tried to contact Mahgoub. His explanation is one of the most damning moments in his ABC interview: “And – but we need to be a bit – very careful too when you’re dealing with a dealer that you don’t go to through third party and undermine their…shall we say, confidentiality with the client that their selling the work.”

urlIndeed, the meager due diligence the NGA did on Mahgoub appears to have begun only in 2008 while considering the fifth object from her collection – the $5 million Shiva. It was then that NGA’s asian art curator Robyn Maxwell asked Kapoor for more information about the private collector, records show. Kapoor replied with an elaborate effort to explain Mahgoub’s possession of million of dollars in ancient art despite her obvious lack of means.

In the letter to Maxwell, Kapoor claimed to have known the Mahgoubs for 20 years. Raj’s husband Abdulla had retired as a Sudanese diplomat and grown depressed, Kapoor wrote. His lack of a job forced the family to downgrade from the “big house” they owned in the 1980s, whose value Kapoor estimated at $500,000, to smaller and smaller residences. “One might wonder why they did not sell the artwork at that time instead of moving into a smaller house,” Kapoor wrote. “I believe that Mrs. Mehgoub knew in the back of her mind that if she let these be sold, her husband would spend that money too very quickly.”

After Abdullah died in Aug. 2004 while visting family in Sudan, his widow Raj Mehgoub was willing to sell the Shiva, Kapoor wrote. He concludes his letter, “I hope this explanation is satisfactory for your office.”

Apparently it was.

UPDATED > Sleeping Beauty: Seizure of Sarcophagus in New York Shows Value of Becchina Dossier

sleeping beauty

UPDATE: After a 13 year legal battle, Switzerland has returned to Italy the last of 4,536 looted objects that were seized from Gianfranco Becchina’s warehouse and gallery in Basel, according to a Swiss media report. (Sources have confirmed the article, which does not name the dealer, refers to Becchina.)

Federal authorities seized a $4 million Roman sarcophagus lid from a New York warehouse on Friday, alleging it had been looted, smuggled out of Italy and sold to convicted Italian antiquities trafficker Gianfranco Becchina in the 1980s before passing through a who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

aboutaams.jpgThe sculpture surfaced again in May 2013, when it was exhibited at the Park Avenue Armory by Phoenix Ancient Art, the antiquities dealership of Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, Lebanese brothers who have both been convicted of crimes related to trafficking in looted art. The Aboutaam’s lawyer told the New York Times that they had exhibited the sculpture on behalf of a client and played no role in its shipping or importation.

The Aboutaams would not identify their client. Records show that the sculpture was in the possession of Noriyoshi Horiuchi, a Japanese antiquities dealer with close ties to Becchina. Horiuchi was instrumental in building the antiquities collection at the Miho Museum and returned more than 300 looted antiquities to Italy after a 2008 raid on his Geneva warehouse.

UPDATE: Phoenix has confirmed to another journalist that their “client” was Horiuchi, who had been asking $3 million for the sarcophagus. The gallery claims to have conducted “comprehensive due diligence” on the sarcophagus tracing it back 30 years but did not learn that it had belonged to Ortiz and Becchina.

The seizure of the Sleeping Beauty was possible with the help of Italian investigators and their access to the Becchina Dossier — the dealer’s archive of business records and photographs documenting his several decades in the illicit antiquities trade.

Gianfranco BecchinaThe Becchina archive’s 140 binders contain more than 13,000 documents — shipping records, invoices and thousands of Polaroid images showing recently looted artifacts, including the Sleeping Beauty. It was seized in 2002 by Italian and Swiss authorities during a raid on Becchina’s Basel warehouse and gallery Palladion Antique Kunst. In 2011, Italy convicted Becchina of being a key middleman in the illicit antiquities trade. He has appealed that conviction, but the seizure of his archives was upheld by Italy’s high court in February 2012.

UPDATE: Gianfranco Becchina has released the following statement on the sarcophagus to RAI, Italy’s national public broadcaster (translated from Italian via Google): “It ‘s true that, several decades ago, the work belonged to the Gallery Palladion Antike Kunst in Basel which was the owner. Contrary to the contention of the news, the sculpture has come to me later a regular exchange transaction as evidenced by the bubble of Swiss Customs reproduced in the service of the New York Times, from which, to all evidence , information in your possession are inspired. The assertion that want to work from a theft is absolutely bizarre and devoid of any support, documentary or otherwise, of such an assumption. The transaction took place in a country, which is Switzerland, where the trade findings was totally legitimate and not subject to any restrictions except the payment of customs duties on imports. According to information provided to me by the seller , the artifact had landed in Italy from Tunisia. The assertion of my conviction relating to other events linked to the art trade, is blatantly false: no hearing has taken place, let alone have been condemned. But this is another story!”

Becchina’s archive is far more detailed that that of his more famous rival, Giacamo Medici, whose collection of Polaroid photographs sparked an international scandal and forced the return of more than 100 prized antiquities on display at American museums. As the case of the Sleeping Beauty illustrates, the Becchina Dossier provides an unprecedented roadmap of the illicit trade of Greek and Roman material looted from Italy and beyond. 

A Winding Path Through the Illicit Trade

Records from Becchina’s archive show the looted sarcophagus was first offered to Becchina by Antonio “Nino” Savoca, an Italian dealer with a shop in Munich who acquired it from looters along with a cache of other large marbles. Savoca sent Becchina a series of Polaroids showing the sarcophagus lid in two fragments. In the image below, you can see the bottom half of the sculpture showing the Beauty’s knees and feet.

IM000522.JPGA receipt dated 8/8/81 shows Becchina bought it for 7.5 million lire from Carlo Ciochetti, a frontman for Savoca in Rome.

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A Swiss customs form dated 8.14.81 shows Becchina imported the sarcophagus to Basel, where it was accepted by his shipping agent Rodolphe Haller.

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A receipt dated 9/15/81 shows Becchina sold the fanciulla,or maiden, to Swiss antiquities collector/dealer George Ortiz for Fr. 80,000. Sources say that in fact Ortiz provided the financing for Becchina’s purchase of the sarcophagus and the two owned it jointly for several years.

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An image attached to the Ortiz receipt shows the sarcophagus as it appeared before restoration.

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In 1982, the sarcophagus was offered for sale to the Getty Museum, which turned it down, sources say. It was also exhibited at a the Historical Museum of Bern for several months during late 1982 and early 1983 and published in a German catalog.

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A list written in German and dated July 15 1986 describes “a broken sarcophagus ex Ciochetti” as the first of 24 objects jointly owned by Becchina and Ortiz. Many of the objects on the list are the same as those recently looted objects shown in the Savoca Polaroids.

IM000358.JPGIt is not clear what happened to the sarcophagus after 1986. At some point it was extensively restored, with the missing marble fragment at the break-point filled in, and acquired by Horiuchi, the Japanese dealer known to have worked closely with Becchina. When and how it was imported into the Unites States is still under investigation.  

This is the condition it was found in when federal agents discovered it in the warehouse in Long Island City, New York. sleeping beauty today

And here are images of the Sleeping Beauty’s seizure today, courtesy of ICE and Tony Aiello, a reporter at CBS New York.

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The Sleeping Beauty will be returned to Italy soon, officials said. “Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago, it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people,” stated U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch. “We will continue to use all legal tools available to us to seize, forfeit and repatriate stolen cultural property.”

Meanwhile, thousands of other sleeping beauties whose origins are detailed in the Becchina archive remain to be found. More on those soon… 

UPDATED > Trouble in Toledo: Feds Investigate Stolen Ganesh, Other Objects from Kapoor at Toledo Museum

ganesh

Let the Lotus Feet of Lord Ganesha, from whom scriptures sprout, confer
on us unmixed blessings. Like thunderbolts, let them shatter away hurdles
that are heaped like mountains.

─ Prayers to Ganesha

UPDATE 2/27: The federal government is investigating the Toledo Museum’s acquisition of a bronze Ganesh and 63 other objects acquired from Kapoor. In an email, museum spokeswoman Kelly Garrow confirmed that Department of Justice officials in New York’s Southern District contacted the museum on Feb 21st to request records related to the musem’s dealings with Kapoor. The museum may have also been contacted by Indian authorities: “We are currently working with government officials from the United States of America and India on this matter,” Garrow said. 

On July 18, I wrote to Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Museum, requesting information about a Chola-era bronze Ganesh that the museum acquired in 2006 from Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor. As my colleague Vijay Kumar first noted, the sculpture appears identical to one identified as stolen from the Sivan Temple by India’s Idol Wing police unit since 2009.

Brian KennedyNoting the match, I requested information on the ownership history of the Ganesh and all other objects the Toledo Museum acquired from Kapoor. It was a request I had first made of the museum a year earlier, with no response.

Toledo’s reply last July was to continue to stonewall: “Our policy is to respond to requests about objects in the TMA collections made by official authorities such as museums, law enforcement agencies, foreign governments and those making legal claims to ownership,” spokeswoman Kelly Garrow told me. “There have been no such inquiries to date in regard to the objects referred to in your email.” In other words, in Toledo’s view the public has no right to know the ownership history of objects in the museum’s collection, even when serious legal questions have been raised.

imagesWith Kapoor’s criminal trial in India for the Sivan thefts set to begin March 7, this week the Toledo Museum reversed that wrongheaded position and released a list of 64 objects it acquired from Kapoor between 2001 and 2010. The museum attributed the move to the information I provided Kennedy on July 18th – with no explanation for the seven month delay. The museum also said it had contacted Indian authorities in July seeking additional information about the objects.

“This is a very stressful situation for us, as we always strive to be absolutely meticulous concerning provenance before purchasing any work of art,” Kennedy wrote to the Indian Consul for Culture in New York in July. “If you could offer us any assistance in our continued research on this piece we would be most grateful.”  Toledo said it has not heard back from Indian authorities.   

We can now answer some of the museum’s questions about the Ganesh. According to documents we’ve recently obtained, it was stolen from an Indian temple shortly the museum bought it in 2006 for $245,000 with the thinnest of fake ownership histories.

GANESH

Vinayagar Toledo

The Toledo Ganesh was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu India in late 2005 or early 2006. According to Indian investigators, Kapoor traveled to Tamil Nadu a year earlier and met with Sanjivi Asokan, the alleged head of a ring of idol thieves in the region. Kapoor asked for Chola-era bronzes, which were in high demand on the art market. Over the next several months, Asokan allegedly hired thieves who — for 700,000 rupees, or about USD$12,000 — broke into the Sivan Temple and stole the Ganesh and seven other idols show below.

Sivan Temple idols

On his blog Poetry in Stone, Kumar has carefully detailed the evidence linking the Toledo Ganesh with that shown in the Idol Wing photos. There is little doubt about the match.

Records we have obtained go further. They include photos of the Ganesh that were sent to Kapoor by Indian thieves soon after it was stolen. An invoice shows the Toledo Museum purchased the Ganesh in May, 2006, soon after its theft, for $245,000. India’s Idol Police posted details of the theft, including images of the Ganesh, in 2009.

Toledo now insists it conducted proper due diligence: “At the time of purchase consideration, the Museum received a provenance affidavit and the curator personally spoke to the listed previous owner.  The object was also run through the Art Loss Registry with no issues detected.”

We’ve previously discussed why a search certificate from the Art Loss Register is meaningless for antiquities. As for the “previous owner” Toledo contacted, it was none other than Kapoor’s girlfriend Selina Mohamed, who was criminally charged in December by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with participated in a decades-long conspiracy to launder stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories. Among the provenances she is charged with fabricating is that of the Toledo Ganesh, records show.

In the letter – dated Jan 2, 2006 on Art of the Past letterhead – Mohamed claimed to have inherited the sculpture from her mother, Rajpati Singh Mohamad, who was said to have purchased it on a trip to India in 1971 – the year before India passed its Antiquities and Art Treasures Act. Mohamed claimed to have had possession of the sculpture in New York since that date. Such convenient out-of-source-country-just-before-ownership-law-passed dates are often used is false ownership histories, and should be a red flag to curators.

In the end, the Toledo Museum’s “absolutely meticulous” due diligence process relied on a single sheet of paper that turns out to have been fabricated.

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It also raises the question: Did Carolyn Putney – Toledo’s curator of asian art since 2001, when the museum first did business with Kapoor – not know that Mohamed had long been Kapoor’s girlfriend and business partner?

We’ll have more on Toledo’s other troubling Kapoor acquisitions soon.