Category Archives: News

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.

rattle

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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?

Bourdonneau1

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.

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*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.

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“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.

image001

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.

sleeping german pub

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.

sleeping ice

photo 2

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.

Carolyn-Putney1

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.

 

Unprecedented: Australia’s National Gallery Sues Kapoor Over $5 Million Stolen Shiva

shiva.kapoor

UPDATE 2/15: The Hindu has revealed new evidence that the Shiva was stolen — a photograph of the bronze taken in situ some 30 years ago. Tamil Nadu police have confirmed the match, reports A. Srivathsan. Vijay Kumar has demonstrated previously that Shiva’s consort Uma was also stolen from the temple and is now in the custody of the US Government. As Kumar writes, “This should be more than adequate proof to seek the return of this bronze back to India and hopefully reunite the divine couple.”

UPDATE 2/14: I was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. about the latest development in the Kapoor case. The National Gallery confirmed to the ABC that they have contacted the Indian government to “discuss avenues for restitution” for the statue, which it now admits was likely stolen. Here’s the story and the interview.

The National Gallery of Australia has filed a $5 million lawsuit against Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor alleging the dealer and his staff committed fraud when they sold the museum an 11th century bronze sculpture of Shiva that had been stolen from an Indian temple.

subhash kapoorThe lawsuit, filed on February 5th in New York’s Supreme Court, alleges Kapoor, his gallery and manager Aaron Freedman “fraudulently induced NGA to acquire the Shiva by making misrepresentations and false assurances concerning the history of the Shiva.” The museum states that as a result of evidence the statue was stolen, the Shiva “now has, at best, clouded title and diminished or no financial and other value.”

shiva-natraja1We first revealed last June that the NGA’s Shiva had been stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu temple. Our post included this photo – sent to Kapoor by an alleged smuggler in 2006 – showing the Shiva soon after it was stolen. We published a copy of the search certificate Kapoor obtained from the Art Loss Register, and linked to the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing, which detailed its investigation of the Shiva’s theft in 2006.

120413aaronfreedman4shThe NGA’s response at the time: “there is yet to emerge any conclusive evidence.”  In its complaint filed last week, the NGA states that a “concrete development” only took place in December, when Aaron Freedman, Kapoor’s gallery manager (above), pled guilty to six criminal counts, including forging provenance.

The NGA lawsuit, to our knowledge, is unprecedented. American museums and private collectors have returned hundreds of looted objects to Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Cambodia and other countries in recent years. In nearly all those cases, dealers had provided standard warranties guaranteeing good title to the objects. And yet not one museum or collector had filed a similar lawsuit…that we know of.

Why not? For one thing, it will likely be difficult to collector from Kapoor, who is facing criminal trial in Indian and an arrest warrant in the United States. Perhaps more importantly, such a lawsuit could expose claimants to extensive discovery about their due diligence and possible counter-claims from dealers that the buyers knew full well the objects being purchased had been looted. Awkward.

radford_1511_narrowweb__300x453,0If Kapoor defends the NGA lawsuit, the Australian museum could face these awkward questions. We know, for example, that NGA Director Ron Radford (left) personally met with Kapoor in his New York gallery. Might we hear Freedman or Kapoor’s version of what exactly Radford knew at the time?

The NGA attempts to forestall this argument by detailing – for the first time – the due diligence it conducted before buying the Shiva. The museum:

  • Obtained a search certificate from the Art Loss Register. [We've explained here why the ALR is virtually useless for antiquities.]
  • Confirmed the address of a previous owner who reported lived in Washington DC [But didn't, apparently, contact that person.]
  • Consulted the Tamil Nadu Idol Police website [But didn't, apparently, contacting the police themselves. The site did not post information about the theft until it was discovered in 2008. Did the NGA never check again?]
  • Checked  Indian archaeological records and an Indian expert. [Whom they haven't named.]
  • Relied on other documents and guarantees provided by Kapoor. [Which we now know were forged.]

Needless to say, this sounds an awful lot like optical due diligence.

The Shiva lawsuit may be the first of several from the NGA. The museum acknowledges it purchased 21 other objects from Kapoor’s gallery between 2002 and 2011, and we’ve detailed similar damning photos and forged ownership histories for objects valued at nearly $10 million. The museum notes, “further work will need to be undertaken by the NGA to ensure clear title and accurate provenance of those works.”

imagesMeanwhile, Kapoor’s criminal trial in India, which was due to begin this week, has been delayed until February 21. It will likely reveal additional details about these and other objects.

Here are copies of the NGA lawsuit and Exhibits:

UPDATED: Fordham’s Folly? Some Answers, Many More Questions about Acquisition of Syrian Mosaics

mosaic1525

UPDATE 1/31: Fordham has hired an independent expert to “vet the provenance,” and is trying to obtain the original forms from the U.S. Customs Bureau, according to university spokesman Bob Howe. “We’ll share our findings and any appropriate documentation at at the end of the process,” Howe writes. I’ve asked for a timeline and the identity of the expert. Why was this vetting not done before the acquisition?  

UPDATED on 1/26 with comments from Peppard, below.

Last week, Fordham University announced it had accepted a gift of nine early Christian mosaics from an anonymous donor.

The mosaics formed part of a church floor located in what is now northwest Syria, according to a university press release, which showed University museum curator Jennifer Udell and Theology professor Michael Peppard posing victoriously next to the recently uncrated acquisitions.

The acquisition sparked concern for several reasons: According to inscriptions translated by Peppard, the mosaics likely come from an ancient church near Apamea, Syria — the site of devastating looting, particularly in recent years. The acquisition also falls outside the Fordham museum’s collecting area, which until now focused on Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. That collection was built largely from the 2007 donation of objects from William D. Walsh, many of which had no clear provenance before the auction sale where they were purchased. The donation raised concerns among scholars. “The message that it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects. Fordham needs to be very careful about this,” UPenn museum director Richard Hodges told the New York Times.

mosaics2

Finally, the donor has insisted on anonymity, and the press release disclosed nothing of the mosaic’ removal from Syria or subsequent ownership history. Predictably, the announcement has caused a flurry of concern among archaeologists and those who follow the illicit antiquities trade.

Via Twitter, Peppard offered a few bits of information: “Excavation unknown. Entered Beirut antiquities market in 60s. Legally purchased/exported in 1972.”

Legally according to…? “According to Lebanese customs papers and all relevant international laws at the time. Henri Seyrig (Beirut) sent photos of these to J.-P. Rey-Coquais in 1968, so they were already there.”

Where were the mosaics likely found? “There were hundreds of rural church ruins in Syria in mid 20th c. Can’t know for sure, esp. since 2011. I argue Apamene diocese based on names, comparanda, and info from Seyrig in 1968.”

mosaicsa500x289

When pressed for more detail, Peppard demured. “I was brought on to translate the inscriptions. I don’t know everything our legal counsel did, but it was a lot. I asked all the Qs that I knew to ask. I really can’t take this up on Twitter any more. Sorry.”

A similar conversation unfolded on the Facebook page of Elizabeth Marlowe, an art history professor at Colgate University, where Fordham’s Susanna McFadden defended the acquisition.

“Guys, I don’t disagree with you on the ethics of this issue, but to defend my colleagues and their decision to acquire these objects: 1) They were previously collecting dust in someones private collection and would never have otherwise seen the light of day if it weren’t for this acquisition. 2) The curator was very careful to make certain that the mosaics had a clear provenance detailing their purchase well before 1970 before accepting the gift 3) We wouldn’t know where they were from AT ALL if Fordham hadn’t acquired them and thus became accessible to a scholar who has managed to convincingly date and located them (article forthcoming in ZPE) 4) A discussion of the legal and ethical issues about this acquisition will certainly ensue as a result of this acquisition, and is welcomed by the curator and all involved. There will be full transparency. BUT, the mosaics only arrived a month ago, and this article was written by a PR person for the university who knows nothing of the issues and was simply trying to get the word out. Lets not attack prematurely.”

Marlowe responded: “Sorry Susanna; I don’t hold you accountable for this (obviously), but given Fordham’s recent collecting history, I don’t see why we should give their acquisitions decisions the benefit of the doubt. The argument that collecting looted antiquities saves them from oblivion is always trotted out, but the fact remains that if there were no buyers of undocumented antiquities, no one would bother to rip them out of their archaeological contexts in the first place. The celebratory tone of this article, and its utter silence about the larger issues, only encourages buyers and looters to keep doing their thing. And the gushing of the historian is naive, at best.”

mosaicsb500x330

At our request, Fordham has now released additional information about the acquisition in an unsigned “university statement” provided by Udell:

Prior to acceptance of the mosaics, museum and University officials, including the curator, executive director of University Art Collections, and University counsel, plus a Fordham scholar specializing in early Christianity, conducted a thorough review of the mosaics’ provenance, ancient and modern.

In accordance with University policy, and in line with standard guidelines for museums, University personnel reviewed documentation provided by the donor. This included two separate special customs invoices, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and filed with the Treasury Department, which confirm that the mosaics were legally purchased in Beirut on May 19, 1972, and August 4, 1972, and shipped on the SS Concordia FJell and SS Star, respectively, and imported into the United States at the port of Baltimore on June 16 and August 23, 1972, respectively.

The mosaics remained continuously in the possession of the donor’s family until they were given to Fordham.

Though acquired in Beirut, their Syrian provenance was established by Michael Peppard, Ph.D, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham. Among Peppard’s research interests is early Christianity,  including its art, ritual, and material culture. His research on the prosopography of the early Byzantine Christian names on the large round mosaic (based largely upon the work of Pauline Donceel-Voute’s work on church mosaics of Syria and Lebanon) shows that the names, especially the bishop Epiphanius, are closely associated with the Apamene diocese of Syria, the region to the west of modern Maarrat al-Numan on the highway between Aleppo and Damascus.

In a forthcoming article in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE–Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), the international flagship journal for first editions of such artifacts, Peppard shows that:

[The mosaics] were available for purchase earlier than [1972], though. In a March, 1968, letter to Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais, Henri Seyrig reports having seen a group of mosaics from “the region of Tell Minis” for sale, which seems to have included these among others. He made photographs of two of them along with “une série de copies hâtives.” Then in a 1979 article about Apamene inscriptions from Huarte, Pierre Canivet reported that Rey-Coquais had shared with him knowledge of the mosaic inscriptions he had seen via Seyrig, one of which dated the episcopacy of Epiphanius to 463 CE. It would take until 1994, however, for the text of that mosaic (namely, the large rondel now in Fordham’s possession) to be printed, in a footnote by Denis Feissel, who had seen a photograph and a transcription of it from a different source, the records of Jean Marcillet-Jaubert. Finally, the transcription was included in a 1996 article by Rey-Coquais and in that year’s L’Annee epigraphique and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG).

Peppard’s research was conducted prior to the University’s acceptance of the gift. He and Jennifer Udell, Ph.D., curator of University art at Fordham, will continue to publish scholarly examinations of the mosaics’ ancient and modern histories.

Fordham has also amended the release on its website with some of the above information, adding this statement:

Fordham University acknowledges the serious and legitimate concerns for the security of Syria’s ancient archaeological sites and artifacts, and more broadly, the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity. The University is committed to best practices in antiquities acquisition, documentation, and display.

We have asked Fordham to release the underlying provenance documents to us, so they can be inspected widely and skeptically by those with no interest in the acquisition. We’ll post them here when we have them.

David Gill at Looting Matters has also asked several pertinent questions about the acquisition. [UPDATE 2/1: He has now also raised questions about the Fordham's Villanovan hut, a bronze head of Caracalla and the Walsh Collection.] To his list we add our own:

Lebanon is notorious as a country of transit for looted antiquities from the Middle East, in part because forged government export documents have historically been easy to obtain. (Just ask Arthur Houghton about the Sevso Treasure and other cases.) Did Fordham obtain copies of the provenance records described above? Do they hold up to close scrutiny?

Why has the donor of such valuable archaeological material insisted on anonymity? What tax write-off did the donor receive for the donation? Given the uniqueness of the material, who provided the arm’s length valuation?

Where is the other related material cited in the Henri Seyrig letter?

In our conversation over Twitter, Peppard asked us, “Honest Q: What would you do differently?” For a start: In light of overwhelming evidence of on-going and historical looting in Syria and the prevalence of false provenance documents, these questions should have been addressed publicly and in detail in the triumphant press announcement.

While we await the release of more details, perhaps now is as good a time as any to dig into that 2007 Walsh donation…

UPDATE 1/26: On Jan 13, I asked Fordham University to release the provenance documents referred to in their release above and details on their due diligence. Specifically, “What in the 1968 letter suggests the Fordham mosaics? Has Fordham seen/obtained a copy of the letter, the photographs or ‘hasty copies’? If so, would you please release copies of them to me?” Fordham curator Jennifer Udell responded the same day, saying, “I am working to get you the relevant documents and the answers to your additional questions. I appreciate your patience.”

It has been 13 days. Despite repeated requests for an update, I have heard nothing further and received no documents.

I have received a number overheated emails from Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard. In his first, on Jan. 14th, he described the above blog post as “a shocking and slanderous personal attack of me.” Noting my request for additional information, he asked, “…Instead of waiting to receive all your answers, why did you proceed to write such defamatory things?”  Subsequent emails continued in a similar tone, accusing me of libel, slander, defamation and unprofessionalism.

Peppard has launched similar allegations at David Gill and at Bill Caraher in the comments section of his blog. Caraher’s response A response from a user “Nakassis” is worth quoting in full: “Ridiculous. Nobody is making any such slanderous accusations and the scholarly community is perfectly legitimate in asking to see the documentation authenticating the legality of the sale. Your (I suspect false) offense is mere smokescreen. Nice try. In any case, the legality of the sale has no bearing on the ethical issue of their purchase, which I notice that you ignore altogether. The fact that thoughtful, professional archaeologists are taking issue with the purchase ought to suggest to you that they might have some legitimate gripes, in which case the best course of action is to say, as your institution did, that you agree with ‘the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity’ instead of doubling down.”

When I asked Peppard to identify a factual error in my post, he could not, saying instead that I had associated him with modern looting near Apamea. Of course, he made the link between the mosaics and Apamea, not I, and the looting there did not start during the current conflict. Putting his legal threats and outrage aside, Peppard’s point seems to boil down to this: “When photos and transcriptions of an artifact were made over 45 years ago and have been published over twenty years ago, it is simply impossible that said artifact was excavated in 2011.”

Impossible? Perhaps. It will be more clear if and when Fordham releases copies of the documents. But the question is not whether the mosaics were looted during the current conflict in Syria. It is whether they were removed legally – whenever they were removed. Nothing in the information Fordham or Peppard has released answers that question.

According to UNESCO’s database of national cultural heritage laws, Syria has had a national patrimony law since at least 1963. A quick search shows that Article 30 of legislative decree #222 adopted by Syria on October 26th 1963  states: “State owned movable antiquities might not be sold or given as gifts. They must be in state museums.”

Unless Fordham can establish the mosaics were exported from Syria before that date – or that the government sanctioned their export after it – it seems unlikely the university can acquire clear title. This is to say nothing of the ethics of Fordham acquiring the mosaics in exchange for an undisclosed tax-write off for donor who wishes, for reasons unclear, to remain anonymous.

We look forward to seeing the documents.

False Provenance: Indictment of Kapoor’s Girlfriend Reveals Fake Ownership Histories

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office criminally charged the girlfriend of Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor on Friday, alleging she participated in a decades-long conspiracy to launder stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories and, more recently, helpin to hide four stolen bronze sculptures as investigators closed in on Kapoor.

subhash kapoorSelina Mohamed was charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy, court records show. She is the third person criminally charged in the case, following the indictments of Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen and gallery manager Aaron Freedman, who pled guilty to six criminal counts earlier this month. There is arrest warrant out for Kapoor, who is in custody in India awaiting trial. [Full coverage.]

Prosecutors allege that since 1992 Mohamed has been involved in the fabrication of bogus ownership histories for dozens of objects Kapoor sold to museums around the world. Since 2007, she also had nominal control over several of Kapoor’s storage facilities.

The possession charges relate to Mohamed’s alleged role in the disappearance of four of Kapoor’s stolen bronze sculptures – two of Shiva and two of Uma – valued at $14.5 million. Kapoor instructed his gallery manager to send the Chola-era bronzes to Mohamed’s house in November 2011, the complaint states. After federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations searched Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery and storage facilities in January 2012, Mohamed insisted that the bronzes be removed from her house. They are now missing.

Mohamed, who records show was arrested on Friday, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney is not identified in court records.

Mohamed allegedly created false provenance for several Kapoor objects we’ve written about in the past. Several more are identified in the complaint for the first time. They include:

152676

A 10th – 11th century sculpture of Lakshmi Narayana from northern India, now at the National Gallery of Australia. The NGA bought it from Kapoor in 2006 for $375,000, records show. As Kapoor noted in promotional materials, “The treatment of the eyes is similar to that of another Lakshmi-Narayana from the temple at Khajuraho,” a world heritage site in Madhya Pradesh that contains some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art.

M5913A gilded 18th century altar from Goa showing the Virgin Mary at Singapore’s Asian Civilization’s Museum. Kapoor sold it to the museum in 2009 for $135,000, describing it as “one of the most important and unique examples of Goanese art to appear on the market in over a generation.”

For the first time, Friday’s criminal complaint  lists several American museums that purchased objects from Kapoor and his associates, who the complaint says attempted to launder them with fabricated ownership histories. They include:

harn vishnu

12th century Vishnu Trivrikrama at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum in Gainsville, FL

Records show Kapoor visited the museum in April 1999 and met with the interim director, Larry David Perkins. Soon after, Kapoor offered to sell the statue to the museum with a false provenance created by Mohamed, records show. His promotional material described its importance, saying, “There is only one known Vishnu Trivikrama image in the world in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, which rivals the Art of the Past image.” The Harn purchased it for $75,000 in 1999.

M5240A 19th century painting at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The museum purchased the painting from Kapoor for $35,000 in 2006. This is the first of painting that investigators have identified as bearing a bogus provenance, suggesting his criminal activity may have extended beyond ancient art. Kapoor sold or donated dozens of paintings to museums, particularly the Met.

The complaint also notes Kapoor attempted to sell a Jain bronze shrine with a false letter of provenance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992. The museum did not acquire the piece, and its unclear where it is today.

M5796aFinally, Mohamed allegedly provided false provenance for a torso of a Vedata that was reported as stolen from Karitalai, India in 2006 on the Interpol database. Kapoor put its value at $450,000, noting in his catalog, “This ornamentation is nearly identical to the jewelry seen on the famous sculpture of a Dancing Devata at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The similarity is so strong that it is highly possible both sculptures come from the same workshop.” (The Met’s Devata is a promised gift from Florence and Herbert Irving and has been on loan to the museum since 1993.)

The false provenances allegedly created by Mohamed over the years were not terribly sophisticated. Here is a sample of one she allegedly created to go with with the NGA’s Dvarapalas:

Dwarapalas prov

Going forward, a key question will be: To what extent did museums conduct basic due diligence on these claimed ownership histories? Many museums no doubt took them at face value. They should immediately make public any provenance information they’ve received from Kapoor to show their good faith and assist investigators with this burgeoning case.

We’ve posted the criminal complaint against Mohamed here: