Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire

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UPDATED with a statement from Andrew Baker below.

Federal agents in New York have seized a looted fresco fragment destined for Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire hedge fund titan turned antiquities collector, according to court records filed last week.

michael_steinhardtThe legal foundation for the case was created by Steinhardt himself twenty years ago with his failed effort – fought all the way to the US Supreme Court – to block the seizure of a golden libation bowl that was illegally exported from Sicily.

The Steinhardt case, as it is known, affirmed that false statements on customs forms about an object’s value or country of origin could be a basis for forfeiture. The civil complaint against the fresco filed Nov 14th by Assistant US Attorney Karin Ornstein in New York’s Eastern District cites the same law on material false statements (Title 18 USC Sec 542) in justifying its seizure and forfeiture.

On April 19, 2011 the fresco was shipped to Steinhardt via FedEx from Kloten, Switzerland, according to the complaint. On customs forms, the object was described as being for “personal use” — as opposed to “for sale” — and it’s country of origin was declared to be Macedonia, the complaint states.

The fresco never made it to Steinhardt. It was detained at Newark Liberty Airport by Customs and Border Protection agents, who requested a documented ownership history for the fresco. An employee of Mat Securitas, a Swiss shipping and security service, provided an Oct. 2011 affidavit of provenance signed by the shipper of record, Andrew Baker of Vaduz, Lichtenstein.

Baker’s affidavit stated the fresco had originated in Macedonia and been acquired in 1959 by Lens Tschanned, who had kept it in his private residence ever since. It was being shipped to a potential buyer and had an estimated sale price of $12,000, the affidavit said.

Experts and Italian investigators came to a different conclusion, court records show. The fresco appears to have been looted from the archaeological site of Paestum, south of Naples. Paestum is well known for its painted tombs and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

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In 1969, Italian archaeologist Mario Napoli began excavations of the Andriuolo necropolis. Among the finds was Tomb 53, which had a triangular pediment nearly identical to the fragment sent to Steinhardt. Today it is the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum. With identical dimensions and an image that precisely mirrors the Steinhardt fragment, experts believe the two stood at opposite sides of Tomb 53, the complaint states.

Fresco from Tomb 53, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum

Fresco from Tomb 53, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum

The complaint alleges that the story of the “old Swiss collection” and the customs declaration citing a Macedonian origin are false, noting that Tomb 53 was first excavated a decade after 1959. In short, the fresco fragment was stolen.

When Baker was presented with the evidence, he cooperated with investigators and agreed to forfeit the fresco fragment, according to a stipulation filed with the case. He denied knowledge that the fragment had been stolen and said he relied upon the representations of an unnamed person who donated it to him. The fresco is now in federal custody awaiting its return to Italy.

The case involves some familiar names:

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)Mat Securitas is the same Swiss shipping service that transported the Getty Museum’s looted goddess of Aphrodite from Switzerland to London. (See Chasing Aphrodite p. 148).Their moto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”

Andrew Baker is a UK solicitor based in London, Turks and Caicos and, since 1992, Lichtenstein. He specializes in tax minimization and has been accused of fraud and money laundering, court records show. One account of the case says, “After analyzing Baker’s offshore structure one expert issued a damning report referring to Baker’s structure as ‘sham’ that is clearly reminiscent of a classic money laundering scheme, indeed rustic at that.’” We’ve asked Baker for a comment and will post it if we receive one.

UPDATE: Via email, Baker said:

The piece in question was part of a long-standing family collection held by a Liechtenstein establishment of which I am the director. It was believed to have originated from Macedonia but sufficient evidence was eventually produced to me by the US authorities to persuade me that its more probable origin was Italy. As soon as I received the evidence, I was more than happy to give the piece up for return to Italy which had laid a claim to it. To answer your question, I do not regularly trade in ancient art.

Regarding the allegations in the lawsuit mentioned above, Bake called them bogus, adding:

[Joseph] Kay and [Emanuel] Zeltser did indeed start a civil law suit in Miami against me and others but they have lost hands down at every instance so far. My understanding is that we now await the outcome of their final appeal.

Baker’s attorney on the fresco case is none other than Harold Grunfeld, who is representing collector Jonathan Rosen in the return of 10,000 cuneiform tablets to Iraq that we wrote about earlier this month.

Michael Steinhardt is a pioneering hedge fund manager and prominent antiquities collector whose net worth is estimated at more than $1 billion. Both he and his wife play a prominent role in the New York art world.

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Michael sits on the American advisory board of Christies and endowed the Director’s position of New York University‘s Institute of Fine Arts, where his wife Judy is the chairwoman. In addition to antiquities, Steinhardt is a major collector of Judaica. On his collection’s website he gives special thanks to Robert Hecht, one of the most prominent dealers in looted antiquities since World War II.

He has been a vocal defender of Shelby White, another prominent New York antiquities collector and controversial donor to NYU. In 2007, Steinhardt told The New York Sun, a newspaper he owns, that White had been unfairly singled out by Greek and Italian authorities who sought the return of looted antiquities in her private collection. “She and her husband, Leon [Levy], have been generous to a fault to all sorts of institutions” Steinhardt said. “Shelby has stood alone, and was not as strongly defended as she should have been by those very institutions to whom she had been a too-generous donor.”

The success Italy, Greece and others have had with restitution claims against American collectors and museums “reflects the weak and inept policy of the American government,” Steinhardt told the Sun. “It seems to me that [the source countries] go after that place whose government is weakest and doesn’t have the courage to stand up for its citizens. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. cultural policy professionals have really, I think, done a great disservice to the cultural institutions in this country.”

The fresco case suggests that Steinhardt remains an active collector of antiquities with unclear ownership histories – even after his lengthy legal battle in the 1990s. In the past he has loaned prominent works to the Met, but recently told Lee Rosenbaum that he would not donate the objects to the museum because he was “less than overjoyed” with how the museum handled antiquities controversies.

It remains an open question if an American institution would accept Steinhardt’s extensive antiquities collection should he choose to donate it some day.

Untold Millions: The National Gallery of Australia Won’t Say What They Paid Kapoor, So We Will – At least $8.5M

imagesThe National Gallery of Australia has refused to tell Australia’s Senate how much it paid (with public money, in some cases) for the 21 objects it acquired from New York antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now facing criminal trial in India for trafficking in stolen art.

The museum has also refused repeated requests from local and international media to release details on the objects it acquired from Kapoor, despite mounting evidence those objects are stolen property and were illegally exported from India.

The NGA’s stonewalling has inspired our digging. We can now reveal that the National Gallery of Australian paid Kapoor at least $8.5 million between 2002 and 2011.

Previously we’ve reported the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million for a Nataraja; $500,000 for a pair of Dvarapalas; $337,500 for a Nagaraja; and $195,000 for an Alam. Here are the prices paid for several other Kapoor objects that were first identified by Michaela Boland in the Australian last month:

The first object the NGA acquired from Kapoor was in September 2002, when the museum paid $35,000 for this Durga Slaying The Buffalo Demon, a 12th-13th century sculpture made in Gujarat, India. An employee of Kapoor assured NGA curator Robyn Maxwell that the piece would “arrive no later than next Friday in Sydney – in time for the gallery’s birthday weekend.”

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In Nov. 2003, the NGA purchased a Seated Gina under an arch from Kapoor for $125,000. The museum identifies the Jainist marble piece as coming from the Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India.

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On May 31, 2005 the NGA paid Kapoor $1.775 million for three important Indian antiquities. One was a bronze dancing child-saint Sambandar, purchased for $850,000. It was accompanied by a false letter of provenance dated 1969. This image shows the Sambandar in Kapoor’s catalog:

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The image of the Sambandar below shows it in Kapoor’s gallery before restoration. Note the bronze appears to be dirty.

This image of the Sambandar shows it in Kapoor's gallery before restoration.

The second in the batch was a granite Goddess Pratyangira purchased for $275,000. As Kapoor noted in his catalog, “Representations of Pratyangira are exceedingly rare, with only one other example known, a 17th-century image that is still in worship.”

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The final piece acquired in May 2005 shows worshipers dancing beneath the bodhi tree, and was acquired for $1.25 million. The NGA helpfully identifies it as coming from “the dome of a stupa at Amaravati, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India.”

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India wasn’t the only source for Kapoor’s antiquities network. In September 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA the head of a Bodhisattva for $247,500. It was likely looted from a Gandharan site in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

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In addition to antiquities, Kapoor also sold the museum several religious icons. This 18th century ivory Madonna and Child were sold to NGA in August 2011 for $35,000.

Madonna and Child

Kapoor sold this ivory crucifix from the Portuguese colony of Goa, India to the NGA in Oct. 2007 for $337,500. The museum says, “Holes piercing completely through the hands and feet mark stigmata and indicate the icon would have originally been affixed to a large cross.”

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We encourage the National Gallery of Australia and other museums to be more forthcoming with information about objects in their collections. Museums are public institutions and owe the public an explanation of what they acquire, from whom they bought it and what they paid for it, particularly when questions are raised about an object’s provenance.

As we’ve learned from the Getty Museum, museums that try to hide the ball end up paying a higher price in the end.

The Rosen Connection: Cornell Will Return 10,000 Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq

CUSAS_6_52-04-054reverse On the front page of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason has the scoop on Cornell University’s decision to return 10,000 cuneiform tablets of unclear provenance to Iraq.

The tablets were donated and lent to Cornell by New York attorney Jonathan Rosen, one of the world’s leading collectors of Near Eastern antiquities. Rosen is a prominent donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University, among others. For years he was also the business partner of Robert Hecht, a leading dealer of looted antiquities to American museums. Their Manhattan gallery Atlantis Antiquities was the source of several looted objects, including some that the Getty Museum has returned to Italy.

The source and ownership history of the Cornell tablets is unclear, as is the cause for their return. Neither Rosen nor the university will say where they were obtained, what their ownership history is or why they are being returned. Iraqi authorities requested their return in 2012, and likewise will not comment on what prompted the request. A press conference announcing the return is expected in the coming weeks, once a formal agreement has been signed. The deal will likely include a collaboration agreement between Iraq and Cornell.

Cornell has been criticized for accepting the Rosen Collection by scholars who suspect the tablets were looted from Iraq in the years after the 1991 Gulf War. Federal investigators suspected the same thing, records show.

The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law.

Investigators also looked into potential violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which at the time barred doing business with Iraq, and tax fraud, the records said. The 1,679 tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but the donor received a $900,000 tax deduction when they were given to Cornell in 2000, the records said.

Ultimately, there were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine precisely when or where the objects were found, the records show.

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The 1,600 tablets referred to in the records include the Garsana archive, a

… private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts’ and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

“It’s our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,” said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

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Below are copies of the investigative records related to the donation of the Garsana archive. They were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, a Harvard scholar who has a forthcoming book on a related set of tablets. The donor name has been redacted but Grunfeld confirmed the document refers to a donation by Miriam Rosen.

We’ll be posting more about this case and related ones in the coming days. Stay tuned!

A Family Affair: Kapoor’s Sister Charged With Hiding Looted Idols

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has charged the sister of Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor with attempting to hide from federal authorities four stolen bronze sculptures worth $14.5 million.

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Kapoor after his arrest and extradition to India

Sushma Sareen was charged on October 7 with four counts of felony possession of stolen property. According the criminal complaint, Sareen took over Kapoor’s business after his arrest in Germany in 2012 and began running it with Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager. Ever since, Sareen has been closely involved with the business, traveling to India, assisting with wire transfers and contacting smugglers, the complaint alleges.

Sareen was released on $10,000 bond. Her lawyer Scott E. Leemon told the New York Times that Sareen denied the charges. See our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.

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Bronze Shiva Natarajah stolen from an Indian temple in 2008

The Chola-era bronzes she attempted to hide are among 14 that were stolen in February 2008 from the Varadharajah Perumi temple in Suthamally Village of Tamil Nadu, India, the complaint alleges. The idols were allegedly stolen for Kapoor by a crew hired by his accomplice Sanjeevi Ashokan. According to Indian investigators, Ashokan “used to select Chola period temples, which were in ruins, for committing theft of antique idols, as theft in such temples would not be known soon after the crime. For identifying temples to commit the crime, he used to refer to books such as South Indian Bronzes, Master pieces of Indian Sculptures and Survey Maps.” In all, 18 idols were stolen from a dilapidated temple during two days in February 2008. They were transported in a truck to Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital, where many were provided to Ashokan, who paid Rs. 25 lakhs, or about $50,000.

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Shiva Nataraja shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past 2010 catalog

Ashokan allegedly exported the idols in a shipment mixed with modern handicrafts through the Chennai Port on March 6, 2008 to Union Link Int. Movers (HK) Inc in Hong Kong. Kapoor paid Ashokan more than 1 million rupees, or roughly US$230,000, through HSBC bank for the idols, Indian investigators allege. Shipping documents seized by U.S. federal agents appear to support that conclusion. The complaint says the shipping records show the 14 idols were illegally exported from India to Hong Kong along with otherwise legal shipments of “new Indian artistic handicrafts.”

The complaint also spells out the early stages of the Kapoor investigation and reveals that federal agents have recruited several insiders — including a member of Kapoor’s staff and a person who posed as a private collector – as informants in their investigation of Kapoor, who they have described as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

That investigation appears to have begun in 2007, when a person described as “Informant #1″ was arrested in California and pled guilty to a customs violation. The defendant began cooperating with federal investigators, who asked Informant 1 to contact Subhash Kapoor and employees of his Madison Avenue  gallery Art of the Past.

Informant 1 began asking Kapoor and his staff for “fresh” antiquities, a euphemism for objects that had recently been looted or stolen. In a 2008 visit to Kapoor’s gallery, Informant 1 was offered a stolen 12th century sculpture of the dancing Hindu got Shiva Nataraja for $3.5 million.

In September 2011, Informant 1 recorded a meeting with Kapoor in which he was offered the $3.5 million Shiva and another Shiva valued at $5 million, both of which were on display in the gallery. Kapoor said he had been holding the objects for a few years and expected them to appreciate by 10 to 15% a year. Both had been displayed in Kapoor’s catalogs and other catalogs, including the Asia Week New York 2009.

Emails obtained by federal agents show Kapoor also was shopping two other Chola bronzes: a Uma Parameshvari valued at $2.5 million and a $3.5 million Uma Parvati.

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Figure of Uma Parvati shown in its original setting in an Indian temple 

Uma Parvati shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past catalogue

In November 2011, Kapoor instructed an employee to send the four bronzes to the apartment of Selina Mohamad. After federal agents searched Kapoor’s gallery in Jan 2012, Mohamad asked that the statues to be moved. Sareen allegedly moved them to a “safe location.”

It is not clear where the bronze idols are today. Kapoor is currently being held in a Chennai jail awaiting trial.

Here is the criminal complaint against his sister:

UPDATE: Vijay Kumar’s site Poetry in Stone has posted a detailed analysis of these and other Kapoor objects. Check it out: http://poetryinstone.in/

Gloves Come Off: Amid Accusations of Deceit, Sotheby’s Lawsuit Reveals How U.S. Built Its Case

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Last week the tables were turned on the U.S. government as documents filed in court by Sotheby’s revealed the private deliberations of American investigators, whose zeal for the return of an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer statue often appears to exceed that of Cambodian officials.

In December, we wrote that filings in the court battle between the U.S. government and Sotheby’s over the statue had revealed the inner workings of the top international auction house. Last November we described how the case had revealed the underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade.

Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn. The exhibits, obtained through discovery in late August and attached to a Sept. 9th Sotheby’s motion for judgment, provide a rare window into the investigation of a major international cultural property case whose outcome will likely hold sway for years. The emails detail how Interpol officials worked close with Brent Easter, an investigator of cultural property crimes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to build a legal rationale for the statue’s seizure on behalf of Cambodia. The process eventually involved officials at the U.S. Department of State, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government. At one point, Easter asked Cambodian officials to stop negotiating with Sotheby’s for the statue’s voluntary return so that the U.S. government could purse its legal case against the auction house.

Read the correspondence:

Sotheby’s cites the records in asking the judge for a ruling on the case without the need for further discovery. The auction house says Easter claimed to have probable cause for seizure of the statue when in fact he was still scrambling to cobble together a legal theory to support Cambodia’s claim. The auction house also cites an expert on French law in arguing that the government’s legal theory — which relies in part on colonial-era decrees for Cambodia’s ownership claim — is bogus.

Read Sotheby’s motion:

The government rebuts Sotheby’s motion in a Sept. 11th letter to the judge, arguing, among other things, that “Sotheby’s provided false and misleading information to the Government.” To support its claim, the government cites a March 22, 2011 email between ICE’s Easter and Jane Levine, a former assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York specialized in cultural property crimes who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. Easter asked Levine whether Sotheby’s had “solid provenance information” for the statue. Levine said they did, noting Sotheby’s had “identified two individuals who presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s.”

SothebyRather than take Levine at her word, Easter pursued the original documentation for the statue, which had been passed from the London auction house Spink and Sons to Christies. Remarkably, the Spink records indicate the statue was stolen from the Cambodian temple of Prasat Chen in 1972, according to the government letter. This is the first hint of documentary evidence to support the government’s claim of the statue’s theft. What else might be contained in the archives of Spink, which was dealer Douglas Latchford‘s  primary pass through for allegedly looted Khmer antiquities? Could this archive also be the source of the “dispositive evidence” of looting cited by the Met in its recent return of two looted Khmer attendants to Cambodia?

Read the government’s letter:

As it turns out, the two individuals Levine cited were Latchford, who the government alleges “conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen,” and his colleague Emma Bunker, who later told Sotheby’s the statue was “definitely stolen.” Not exactly disinterested parties, and the government accuses Levine of deception: “The information provided by Levine was simply false.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct 14th. 

Optical Due Diligence: Art Loss Register Claims To Vet Ancient Art. Does it?

UPDATE: A 9/20 story in The New York Times reveals other questionable dealings of ALR and the departure of General Counsel Chris Marinello.

UPDATE 9/13: We’re told there have been several recent departures of senior staff from the Art Loss Register. They include Alice-Farren Bradley, a recovery specialist; MaryKate Cleary, who researched Nazi looting claims until she left for MOMA; and Ariane Moser, who managed European clients. That leaves Radcliffe, general counsel Chris Marinello, antiquities specialist William Webber and a handful of others.

Thirty years ago, a Getty antiquities curator coined the phrase “optical due diligence” – creating the appearance of caution while continuing to buying suspect antiquities.

Today, that continues to be the favored approach for much of the art world. Museums, auction houses, private collectors and dealers all claim to vet ancient art to make certain it was not illegally excavated. Yet we keep learning that the vetting process failed to prevent the acquisition of recently looted art.

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A key facilitator of this fiction is the Art Loss Register, a for-profit registry based in London. ALR charges nearly $100 for a search of its files, touted as “the world’s largest database of stolen art.” In return, a client receives a certificate stating “at the date that the search was made the item had not been registered as stolen.” Sadly, that caveat-laden certificate has become the coin of the realm for due diligence in the art world.

As we revealed recently, the certificate offered no protection to the National Gallery of Australia, which purchased a stolen bronze Shiva after receiving an ALR search certificate from antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor:

The NGA was merely the latest to learn that, when it comes to antiquities at least, ALR certificates are not worth the paper they’re printed on. David Gill recently noted that the ALR claims to protect buyers, but appears to have provided certificates for the Christies sale of antiquities that have since been tied to known loot dealers Giacamo MediciRobin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina.

Tom Flynn recently wrote that the ALR “is not a force for good,” adding that “a virtual market monopoly in Due Diligence provision is not good for the art market.” He cited this example of ALR’s shady dealings outside the area of antiquities:  

In 2008, it was revealed that the company had been approached by a Kent art dealer, Michael Marks, who was seeking to conduct Due Diligence on a painting by the Indian Modernist artist Francis Newton Souza, which Mr Marks was hoping to buy. Marks was told by ALR chairman Julian Radcliffe that the painting was not on the ALR’s database of stolen art. It was.

In the court judgment issued by Justice Tugenhadt, it emerged that: “After Mr Marks had paid the search fee, he spoke to Mr Radcliffe. It is common ground that Mr Radcliffe told Mr Marks that if Mr Marks were to buy the Paintings, he, Mr Radcliffe, had a client who was interested in buying them from Mr Marks. Mr Marks asked Mr Radcliffe whether there was a problem with good title, and Mr Radcliffe said that there was not. It is common ground, and Mr Radcliffe accepts, that he misled Mr Marks.”

Given this history, we were curious why the ALR continues to issue certificates for ancient art — and why the art world continues to accept them as evidence of anything. In June, Jason contacted ALR founder Julian Radcliffe for his views on the issue. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Jason Felch: Why does ALR provide search certificates for ancient art when there is obviously no documented theft when most antiquities are looted?

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Julian Radcliffe: We are aware of the fact that our certifications are waved in the air saying, ‘Look what a good boy we are.’ We don’t like that. Ten years ago, the police and Carabinieri came to us and said, ‘Your certifications are being abused by bad guys who are waving them around as proof of clear title.’ We all know illegal excavations are not in the database. So 10 years ago we said, we’ll stop giving any certifications for antiquities, a difficult area. Then, when we had a further meeting [with law enforcement], they said the certifications are quite useful to police, as they give an audit trail. And if dealers don’t ask you [for one], it’s of great interest because that’s evidence they’re trying to suppress the fact. So we continued to issue them, at the request of law enforcement. 

JF: Who, specifically, asked you to continue providing certificates for antiquities?

JR: I won’t say. And the Carabinieri would deny it if asked, of course.

JF: In 2007, Subhash Kapoor provided no provenance for the Shiva when asking ALR to search its database. Does ALR require provenance today?

JR: We are now insisting they give us some provenance….Where appropriate we try to check the provenance they give us through the British Museum and have made important discoveries. We are not going to be able to detect everything, particularly forged provenance.

JF: When did you start requiring provenance? And what amount of provenance do you require to run a search?

JR: In the last few months. We had a meeting with an auction house this morning, saying that they must give us more provenance…We require the generic information on the current holder and the date that the holder got it. We need a starting point if the certification is challenged later. You told us this was held by a dealer in Paris. If challenged, we would then ask, What’s the name of the dealer? So we can then make the dealer, through a court order, reveal who the parties were. The trouble is very often some of these items genuinely don’t have a full provenance. There are a lot of items out in the market that might have been exported legally, but nobody knows.

JF: So your “provenance” policy doesn’t even require the name of a previous owner until a piece is challenged. Why not require provenance going back to the 1970 UNESCO accord?

JR: I’d love to do that but they [the dealers] would make it up. What I would like to do is to get the source countries and archaeological community to recognize the fact that the antiquities trade would not go away. It continues. One of the problems is that minimalist architectural design favors antiquities and there’s a great demand from interior decorators. The market isn’t going to collapse. So we’ve got to regulate and police it. Reintroduce partage to make the legitimate market and the illicit market very clear. At least we’ve got a clear policy.

JF: Is ALR profitable?

JR: We haven’t made a profit for 10 years. I’ve invested 1 million pounds. I’ve made enough money in other companies that I don’t’ have to worry about it not making additional money. It’s been very hard to get clients to pay. Over half of our income comes from searching people, under half from recovery fees for insurance. Some 40 percent of our income is from recovery. In antiquities we get no recovery fees. The victims can’t pay. It’s a really bad area for us. The rest is from search fees. Half of that comes from auction houses and the other from dealers, museums, collectors, etc. That corresponds to roughly to 50%  of the art market.

JF: Who are your biggest clients?

JR: Our clients include all the major auction houses. A few auction houses won’t search, but Bonhams, Christies and Sotheby’s all use us. It’s no secret that a number of them would like more help from us in this antiquities market. The antiquity dealers have been more inclined to search than dealers in other items.

JF: The NGA’s Shiva is unusual for an antiquity because it had been documented before it was stolen. A year or so after Kapoor received an ALR certificate for the stolen Shiva, Indian authorities posted online images of it with details of the theft. Yet ALR did not make the connection. Why not? Does ALR search past certificates to see if new information has surfaced?

JR: We go around those sites and take items…We employ 25 people in India doing back office searching. A number have worked in the Indian cultural heritage department. But the big issue is with IT:  We have a database of 300,00 – 400,000 stolen items to search against the 2.5 million searches we’ve done in the past. If we search against all those previous searches, it slows down the search too much. And we couldn’t digitize the old searches, not back to 1991.

JF: How many certificates did ALR provide to Subhash Kapoor over the years?

JR: We’re looking into it.

Later via email Radcliffe added, “We are passing on your request for the number of certificates to the law enforcement to whom we gave all the information and will revert when we hear from them.”

No word since.

UPDATE: David Gill, writing with Christos Tsirogiannis in the 2011 Journal of Art Crime, notes that the major auction houses have routinely relied on the Art Loss Register to defend the sale of objects linked to notorious antiquities traffickers including Giacomo Medici, whose archives showing thousands of recently looted antiquities is apparently not included in ALR’s database.

 

UPDATED: At Looted Temple In India, Locals Unwittingly Worship a Fake

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UPDATED BELOW

Earlier this month we revealed that a 900-year-old Indian sculpture at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (above) was stolen from an Indian temple and sold to the museum in 2004 by Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.

We now have current pictures of the Vriddachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, where a modern replica (below) is today worshipped in place of the stolen piece.

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Both the ancient and the modern sculptures represent Ardhanarisvara, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. According to Vijay Kumar, an authority on Tamil Nadu temple sculptures, the current sculpture was installed in 2002 during a temple ritual. A local elder told Kumar that the original was stolen sometime in the 1980s. The replacement statue appears to be modern, Kumar notes, because of the position of the right hand: “Iconography stipulates that the hand lay flat on the head of the bull…But the sculptor who did this was most certainly a novice who [while] good in sculpting does not know the agamas (liturgical texts) well!”

In a recent report in The Hindu, journalist A. Srivathsan noted that temple authorities were not aware the original sculpture had been stolen. Srivathsan went on to describe the significance of the discovery:

With this revelation, that came during ongoing investigations involving Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a United States-based antiquities dealer arrested and jailed for his alleged involvement in an idol theft case, it has become apparent that the looting of Indian temple treasures is far more rampant than what was hitherto assumed or known. And, it would seem that even big and well-known temples have not been spared.

Ardhanarishvara receiptWhen The Hindu informed local authorities about the theft, the case was immediately referred to the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police for investigation. Kapoor is facing trial in the coming months in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai in a case built by the Idol Wing with the help of American investigators, who have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from Kapoor. (Find our previous Kapoor coverage here.)

The Hindu also dug into a 1970 receipt (above) provided to the museum by Kapoor, who has been known to forge false ownership histories in other cases.

When The Hindu traced out the shop, which still exists in Old Delhi, and spoke to one of the sons of Uttam Singh over the phone, he said he was not aware of such a sale. He also clarified that his deceased father Uttam Singh signed only in Urdu. The receipt produced by the Australian gallery bears no signature.

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As Michaela Boland has noted in The Australian, authorities at the Art Gallery of New South Wales would have realized the statue they purchased for $300,000 had been stolen if they had simply walked seven minutes across town to the state library of New South Wales. There Douglas E. Barrett’s 1974 book Early Cola Architecture and Sculpture, 866-1014 AD has an image of the sculpture in its original context in the Vriddachalam temple.

Boland quotes Damien Huffer, archaeologist and author of the excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under, saying that the publication clearly establishes the sculpture was removed illegally from India, which has required a permit for the export of antiquities since 1972. Huffer also descries the lack of research performed by museum curators:

“For a museum or gallery to truly perform due diligence requires that they bring all of their often considerable resources to bear to assess all available published information, and not merely what the dealer suggests.”

The case shows once again that today investigators and journalists around the world are doing the research that museums should have done years ago.

UPDATE 7/29: Michaela Boland at The Australian has written a story with the latest developments, noting that Tamil Nadu authorities have been notified of the theft and are investigating. She includes this tidbit suggesting a failure of due diligence at Australian museums: “A researcher at the French Institute [ of Pondicherry, a research unit funded by the French government which maintains a database of significant antiquities in southern India] told The Australian that in 21 years he did not field an inquiry from an Australian art gallery researching Indian artefacts, despite the institute’s well-known database intended to serve exactly that purpose.” Boland also quotes Art Gallery NSW director Michael Brand saying he is “feeling a strong sense of deja vu,” a reference to his handling of similar antiquities scandals at the Getty Museum in 2007.

Lost and Found: Images Show Art Gallery NSW’s Sculpture Was Stolen From An Indian Temple

A 900-year-old Indian statue at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales was stolen from an Indian temple sometime after 1974, newly identified images show.

Ardhanarishvara

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Last week, the Art Gallery NSW released provenance records for the Chola-era sculpture of Ardhanarishvara which it purchased in 2004 for more than $300,000. The documents were supplied by Subhash Kapoor, the prominent Manhattan antiquities dealer who sold the sculpture to the museum. (Previous Kapoor coverage here.) The records claim a New York antiquities collector had purchased the sculpture in 1970 from a handicraft dealer in Dehli and held it ever since.

Today we can say that ownership history, like others supplied by Kapoor, was fabricated. Images identified by Poetry in Stone, a blog that celebrates South Asian temple sculpture, show the statue was in situ at the Vriddhachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, India for at least four years after 1970 and was subsequently stolen.

The image above left shows the sculpture in Sydney as it looks today. The image above right was published in Douglas Barrett’s 1974 book Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture 866 – 1014 and shows the sculpture in its original context at the Vriddhachalam temple.

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How the identification was made

The discovery of the sculpture’s origin is a result of rapid international collaboration. After requests from Jason and The Australian’s Michaela Boland, the Art Gallery NSA released the Kapoor provenance documents on June 25. On June 28th, A. Srivathsan at The Hindu wrote a story about the recent Kapoor revelations with a link to ChasingAphrodite.com

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One of the people who read the story was Vijay Kumar, the creator of Poetry in Stone. Kumar came to this site, saw our post on the Ardhanarishvara and recognized it immediately.

Four years earlier, Kumar had published an iconographic study of Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. One of the temple sculptures he singled out as the “perfect form” of the god was in the Vriddhachalam temple:

You can see the female portion in full triple flexion ( tribanga) and to compensate for it, the right leg of Shiva is bent fully. This causes the male torso to lean at the awkward angle and though the sculpture would look pleasing it would not be aesthetically appealing. So he comes up with an ingenious solution. Make Shiva rest or lean on to something and the readily available option is his mount or vehicle – Nandhi. Presto, problem solved. Add lots of beautiful ornamentation, develop the differences in the dressing style and this perfected model becomes a standard for all Ardhanari images henceforth.

When Kumar recognized the Sydney sculpture as the very same “perfect model,” he dug through his files and found the 1974 plate in the Barrett book and other records of the statue, which was well documented in its original context. Here is an image of the statue in situ with a Tamil inscription above the niche from the archives of the American Academy of Benares, Varanasi:

0 RIn an email to me today, Kumar wrote:

“This particular form was my personal favorite as its beauty appealed to me in a queer form: despite two of the main limbs, the hands mutilated, the sculpture still retained its sinuous grace. If you were to look at an ordinary piece of art with such a deformity your eye would instantly go to the broken parts. However, in this piece unless someone specifically points it out to you, at first glance you tend to miss the broken hands! Apart from that, the brilliant ornamentation and their swaying etc. are wonderfully sculpted. The ear of the bull comes a bit out of the composition as well. Overall the contours of the kosta block itself are unique as well and offer the vital clue.”

Coincidently, Kumar is a native of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital where Kapoor is currently facing trial. He currently lives in Singapore but has reached out to contacts in Tamil Nadu to determine when and how the sculpture was stolen from the Vriddhachalam temple. We’ll keep you posted on what he finds out.

Michael Brand

Michael Brand

Meanwhile, the revelations raise several questions. When will other museums release provenance information provided by Kapoor? If the Art Gallery NSW sculpture had been so widely published, why did the museum not identify it as stolen before the 2004 acquisition? And how will the museum’s director Michael Brand respond to compelling new evidence that objects acquired before his arrival in Sydney were apparently stolen and smuggled out of India.

Brand, whose specialty is South Asia art, faced similar questions at the Getty Museum and did the right thing.

Will he now?

Coming Clean: Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales Releases Kapoor Documents

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales has released provenance information for one of the six objects it purchased from Subhash Kapoor, the New York antiquities dealer currently facing trial in India for trafficking in looted art. (Past coverage here.)

The release comes in the wake of our revelations about looted objects at the National Gallery of Australia, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor, including a $5 million sculpture of Shiva that was stolen from an Indian temple not long before it was offered to the museum with bogus ownership history. The NGA has refused multiple requests to release provenance information on any of the objects in its collection, despite compelling evidence several of those objects were looted.

We made similar requests to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has acknowledged acquiring six objects from Kapoor between 1994 and 2004. Last week, the museum posted information about the Kapoor objects on the provenance research section of its website, which had previously been dedicated to European paintings. After consulting with his board, museum director Michael Brand released on Tuesday the ownership history provided by Kapoor for one of those objects.

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Ardhanarishvara

In 2004, the Gallery purchased this Chola-period sculpture from Kapoor for more than $300,000. The 44-inch stone figure represents Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. It comes from Tamil Nadu, home to some 2500 important temples to Shiva. The image of Ardhanarishvara was likely in a niche on an external wall.

Kapoor provided two documents with the sculpture.

One is a receipt dated 1970, purportedly from Uttam Singh and Sons, the Delhi “copper and brass palace” that sold the sculpture to a private collector.

Ardhanarishvara receipt

The second document purports to be a 2003 “Letter of Provenance” on letterhead from Art of the Past, Kapoor’s Madison Ave. gallery. It is signed by “Raj Mehgoub,” who claims to be the wife of a diplomat who lived in Delhi from 1968 to 1971.

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It is unclear whether the documents are genuine. Uttam Singh and Sons appears to be a real business in Delhi, but we could not reach the owners and did not find record of a Raj or Abdulla Mehgoub.

The documents bear a striking resemblance to other ownership records provided by Kapoor that appear to have been falsified. See, for example, this receipt from a Calcutta gallery for a pair of statues that photos show were in India recently:

Dwarapalas receipt

The Art Gallery of New South Wales acknowledges it did not obtain provenance information for the other five objects acquired from Kapoor, whose total value was about $100,000. The museum says it has not yet been contacted by Indian or American authorities investigating Kapoor.

Michael Brand

Despite lapses in the past, the Gallery should be congratulated for its transparent approach in the current case. Clearly Michael Brand learned from his experience at the Getty Museum, where — as we recount in Chasing Aphrodite — his predecessors’ stonewalling of Italian investigators prolonged the Getty’s troubles for years.

Other museums should follow the Gallery’s lead and use their provenance websites to publish all relevant information about antiquities obtained from Kapoor.

UPDATED: Documents Suggest More Stolen Idols At National Gallery Of Australia

UPDATE 4/10/14: Indian authorities have asked regional police and the public to help identify the origin of the two Dvarapalas that Kapoor sold to the NGA.

Last week we revealed documents suggesting the $5 million bronze Dancing Shiva purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2005  had been stolen from an Indian temple not long before.

Shiva Nataraja2The story made immediate waves. You can find media coverage of our scoop here and here. Jason has a story in the June 11th Los Angeles Times on the case. We’ve also shared info with Michaela Boland, the national arts writer at The Australian, who has published additional material there.

As promised, here’s information on four more objects the museum acquired from Subhash Kapoor, whose Manhattan gallery Art of the Past has been selling ancient art to museums around the world since 1974.

Two Dvarapalas, or Door Guardians

In 2005, the National Gallery of Australia purchased a pair of 15th century stone Dvarapalas from Kapoor for nearly $500,000.

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Kapoor provided ownership records for the pair stating they were purchased by a New York collector in 1971 from a gallery in Calcutta .

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Kapoor included what he claimed to be an original receipt from the gallery.

Dwarapalas receipt

Digital images sent to Kapoor, however, show the statues sitting on a dirt floor, propped up by a brick with a white cloth hanging behind them. Sources say the images were taken by Indian smugglers and sent to Kapoor via email in recent years.

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Nagaraja, the Serpent King

In 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA an 8th century sandstone sculpture of Nagaraja, the Serpent King, for $337,500.

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An ownership document supplied by Kapoor states the Nagaraja had been in a Japanese private collection since 1969.

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But among Kapoor’s records are digital pictures of the sculpture suggesting it was still in India in 2005. They show what appears to be the same sculpture sitting on a dirt floor and plaid blanket (above right), and in a warehouse leaning up against burlap packing materials (below.)

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Monumental Alam

In 2008, the NGA acquired a 19th century monumental brass Alam, or Islamic processional standard, from Kapoor for $195,000.

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The dealer provided a document claiming a diplomat from New York had purchased it in Delhi in the late 1960s.

Alam provDigital images allegedly sent to Kapoor by smugglers, however, suggest it was in India in 2006.

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The National Galley of Australia has not responded to multiple requests for comment. Perhaps none is needed?

UPDATE 6/13: Prompted by “media reports,” the National Gallery of Australia has released a statement acknowledging, “it is possible that the Gallery is a victim of fraud.”

The NGA details the due diligence process it took before acquiring the statue of Shiva include:

∙ the receipt of a certificate from the international Art Loss Register

∙ receiving and checking letters from the previous owner, including checking that the address of the former owner was legitimate

∙ consulting the Tamil Nadu Police website for stolen objects

∙ liaising with a Chola bronze expert in India, who was supportive of the acquisition

∙ checking the extensive records produced by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The steps were clearly not sufficient to prevent the museum from repeatedly acquiring recently looted antiquities from Kapoor. They raise several questions: Does  an Art Loss Register certificate for unprovenanced antiquities carry any meaning? If not, as many experts say, why is it continued to be offered evidence of due diligence by auction houses, dealers and museums? Why did the museum merely confirm the address of the previous owner, not contact him? When the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing website posted an image of the stolen Shiva in 2009, months after the NGA acquired the statue, did the museum contact authorities or do anything proactive to determine if their statue had indeed been stolen? And who was the Chola bronze expert in India who was consulted?

The statement concludes: “At this point the Gallery has been given no substantiated evidence to affect its belief that it owns a genuine item with proper documentation for its history of ownership and which was acquired within accepted museums standards.” Really?

The Australian case holds lessons for all museums that acquire ancient art. The “well regarded” dealers you do business with may someday end up like Kapoor. When that happens, how will your due dilligence efforts look in hindsight. In particular, good faith museums in possession of purported ownership histories from Kapoor should be actively investigating the true provenance of those objects – and making the results public.