Tag Archives: Art of the Past

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: Guilty Plea: Kapoor’s Gallery Manager Cops to Six Criminal Counts

UPDATE: The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday that it is seeking to return its stolen Shiva, purchased from Kapoor in 2008 for $5 million, and will pursue a lawsuit against Kapoor. See below for details. 

The manager of Subhash Kapoor’s New York antiquities gallery pleaded guilty Wednesday to six criminal charges related to trafficking in stolen art.

ed106For nearly two decades, Aaron Freedman, 41, managed Art of the Past on Madison Avenue, a major supplier of ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world.

During that time, court records say, Freedman helped Kapoor manage a global network of looters, thieves and smugglers who pried artifacts from temples and ruins, laundered them with forged ownership histories and sold them to some of the world’s most prominent museums and collectors.

“He arranged for the shipping into and out of the United States of antiquities stolen from numbers countries including, but not limited to, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia, having the antiquities shipped through intermediaries in order to create documentation to help launder the pieces,” the court records say. “He also arranged for the manufacturing of false provenances for illicit cultural property, the contacting of prospective buyers, and the ultimate sale and transport of those looted and thereafter laundered antiquities.”

In a court appearance Wednesday, Freedman pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy and five counts of possession of stolen property, according to a spokesman for  the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. His attorney Paul Bergman did not return calls for comment. According to an online profile, Freedman graduated from Vassar College before studying Art History at Rutgers University. He started work at Art of the Past in 1995.

UPDATE: Bergman told The New York Times his client was eager to “take concrete steps to rectify his serious mistakes.” The prosecutor on the case was quoted by the Times saying, “Mr. Freedman, I believe, is sincerely and genuinely remorseful and repentant and he has taken significant steps toward making amends.” It appears likely Freedman will be cooperating with investigators.

subhash kapoorFreedman’s boss Subhash Kapoor is now in custody in Chennai, India where he is facing trial as the alleged mastermind of an international antiquities smuggling ring. Federal investigators have described Kapoor as one of the most prolific antiquities smugglers in the world. In a series of raids on his New York gallery and storage facilities, agents have seized an estimated $100 million in art. They are now in the process of tracking down objects he sold to museums and collectors around the world. [Find all our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.]

Since 1974, Kapoor has sold or donated thousands of pieces of ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and Australia’s National Gallery and Art Gallery of New South Whales.

The court records filed Wednesday detail several stolen objects that Freedman and Kapoor attempted to sell to museums and collectors.

The Bharhut Stupa

M5648 copyThe most important has not previously been revealed: a nearly 7-foot tall 2nd Century BCE sandstone sculpture from Bharhut stupa, in central India. Kapoor priced it at a staggering $15 million, calling it “the most significant example of Indian sculpture known to exist outside of India.”

In his gallery’s promotional materials for the sculpture, Kapoor stressed the object’s importance and rarity: “The Bharhut Stupa is one the most important monuments for the history of stone sculpture in India, as it was one of the first Buddhist monuments to have used stone extensively in its construction. In addition, the Bharhut Stupa was one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in its time.”

“The material remains from Bharhut Stupa are extremely limited, and, therefore, incredibly rare. Aside from a handful of museums in India (the Allahabad Museum, the Indian Museum in Calcutta, and the National Museum in New Delhi) there is no collection in the west, except for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, that has anything worth mentioning from this all-important site. The Norton Simon Museum has two well-known railing pillars from the Bharhut region that were acquired in the late 1960s….”

In a letter to a potential buyer, Freedman said the sculpture had “become available from an old private collection.” Investigators say it was stolen from the private residence of an Indian man who reported the theft in 2004.

Uma Parameshvari in Singapore

M5354newhfThis 11th Century Chola sculpture of Uma Parameshvari, the Great Goddess, standing in her sensuous thrice-bent pose, was stolen from the Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur District in 2005 or 2006, according to the court records.

Kapoor sold it to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum in February 2007 for $650,000, records show. His contact there was the museum’s senior curator Dr. Gauri Krishnan.

Also cited in support of Freedman’s criminal charges are four missing Chola sculptures worth $14.5 million that authorities allege were hidden by Kapoor’s sister, Sushma Sareen. As we reported in October, Sareen was criminally charged for her role in the case.

The final piece mentioned in the court records is the National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture of Shiva, purchased for $5 million in 2008. As we revealed in June, the sculpture was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu.

UPDATE 12/5: The National Gallery of Australia released the following statement after learning about Freedman’s plea agreement:

The NGA’s Chola-period Shiva Nataraja is among the items listed as being illegally exported from India. This information represents a significant and concrete development in the available information regarding the Kapoor case. The Gallery has instructed its American attorneys to commence legal proceedings against Subhash Kapoor in accordance with the provisions of our acquisition agreement. NGA Director Ron Radford has already contacted the Indian High Commission to discuss avenues for restitution…

shiva.kapoor

Freedman is due back in court on February 4th for sentencing. The Superior Court Information on his case, NY vs. Freedman (No. 2013NY091098) can be found here: 

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

imgres

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.

220.2004##S.jpg.339x605_q85

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.

Aradhanareshwara prov

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.

148808

dvarapala2

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

Dwarapalas prov

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.

Dwarapala1

Dwarapala2

Nagaraja, the Serpent King

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

152673Nagaraja 2

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

Nagaraja prov

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.)

Nagaraja 1

Monumental Alam

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

alam

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.

Alam1

Alam2

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.

SCOOP: New Evidence Of Stolen Idols at the National Gallery of Australia

366257-shiva

This 900-year-old bronze statue of Dancing Shiva, shown on display at the National Gallery of Australia, was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, India shortly before the museum acquired it, new records show.

UPDATE 11/6: The NGA has released a statement saying there is no “conclusive evidence” the sculpture was stolen. See below.

UPDATE 6/12: Since publishing this post we’ve received documents that show the National Gallery of Art purchased the Dancing Shiva (above) for $5 million, not the $2 million originally stated below and in other media reports.

Last July, we wrote that the arrest of Indian antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor would test the museum world’s commitment to transparency.

subhash kapoor

Federal investigators in the United States have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from the Manhattan dealer, who they describe as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.” In previous posts, we have identified suspect Kapoor objects at museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor.

RadfordSo far, the NGA has failed the transparency test. As a member of the International Council of Museums, the museum is bound by a code of ethics that requires it to be open about its collection. But museum officials have refused to identify or release collecting histories for the 21 objects. Instead, the NGA created an investigative committee that includes the two museum officials most responsible for the Kapoor acquisitions: museum director Ron Radford (left) and senior curator of Asian art Robyn Maxwell.

The museum has promised to cooperate with investigators, but in May, Indian officials complained that the NGA had refused to respond to a formal request for information. (The museum claims it never received the request.) Last week Radford was asked about the case during a hearing of Australia’s senate, but would not divulge additional information, saying only that he was confident none of the Kapoor objects had been looted.

Radford’s confidence is sorely misplaced. In the coming days, ChasingAphrodite.com will publish new information about several of the objects the NGA acquired from Kapoor. The records, obtained from sources with knowledge of the on-going investigations, show that several of the objects were illegally removed from Indian temples shortly before Kapoor offered them to Radford, Maxwell and other NGA officials. Many of the objects were accompanied by false provenance papers. Those ownership histories are belied by evidence seized from Kapoor, including photographs sent to him by smugglers soon after the idols had been removed from Indian temples.

The Lord of Dance

In 2008, the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million $2 million for a bronze Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva. The more than 4-foot (130 cm.) tall figure depicts the Hindu god as the Lord of Dance, prancing in a ring of flames as he steps on the head of a dwarf who represents ignorance. Shiva is ushering in the destruction of the weary universe so that the god Brahma may restart the process of creation. It is a common theme in Indian mythology, particularly in the Tamil temples of southern India.

Kapoor provided the museum with a document stating that he had purchased the bronze from a Washington D.C. man in October 2004. He also signed a warranty prepared by the museum that transferred title to the NGA and indemnified the museum in case of a breach.

Shiva Natraja1

The story of the Washington owner was a fabrication, the records show. This photo of the Nataraja (left) was sent to Kapoor by smugglers in October 2006. Sources say it was taken soon after the  idol was stolen from the Sivan Temple in the village of Sree Puranthan in Tamil Nadu, where it and several other large bronze idols were worshiped before the temple fell into ruin.

According to Indian investigators, a year earlier Kapoor had traveled to Tamil Nadu 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 eight idols shown below (Shiva at top left.)Sivan Temple idolsThe idols were allegedly mingled with replicas to convince a government official to certify them as modern handicrafts. They were exported by Ever Star International Services Inc. to New York, where they were received by Kapoor’s company Nimbus Imports Exports in the fall of 2006. For his trouble, Asokan was allegedly paid about USD$200,000.

In April 2007, Kapoor obtained a certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the Shiva had not been registered as stolen property. ALR had no basis to know the Shiva had been stolen — the theft was only discovered by villagers in 2008. But Kapoor was not required to provide any provenance information for the bronze, despite ALR’s public claim that “certificates are not issued on the basis of incomplete or inadequately researched information.”

shiva.kapoorKapoor included the Shiva in the catalog of his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past with the above photo and this description:

Shiva as the Nataraja, The Lord of the Dance, is the symbol par excellence of South Asian art. It is the full and perfect expression of divine totality—the manifestation of pure, primal rhythmic power. Shiva simultaneously dances the universe into existence by awakening inert matter with the rhythmic pulse of movement, sustains this existence, and sends all form into destruction….

This is the largest, most significant Chola Period sculpture of this subject to appear on the market in a generation.

There are many bronze sculptures of Nataraja, and they all share certain basic characteristics. But even to a lay eye, the similarities between the Shiva shown in the smuggler’s photos and the one on display at the NGA are apparent. For example, looking closely at the individual flames surrounding Shiva, most have tails to the left, center and middle of the flame. In both the smugglers and the NGA’s Shiva, however, the first and second flames on the top left and the third flame on the top right have tails to the right and left, but none in the middle.

Here is a photo of the Shiva from behind, also sent to Kapoor by the alleged smugglers in 2006. It gives more context for the room, which does not appear to be on Madison Avenue or in Washington D.C.

Shiva Nataraja2

Kapoor, Asokan and the alleged thieves have all been arrested and are currently being tried in India for the Sivan Temple thefts. Meanwhile, American officials with the Department of Homeland Security’s HSI team have issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in the U.S. and are pursuing their own investigation of museums that acquired objects from him.

We’ll soon post additional documents and photos of Kapoor objects at the NGA and other museums. Meanwhile, institutions that did business with Kapoor would be wise to 1) publicly disclose complete copies of the collecting history for those objects and 2) proactively contact U.S. and Indian investigators.

UPDATE: On Nov 6, 2013, the museum released the following statement from its attorney:

The National Gallery of Australia believes there is yet to emerge any conclusive evidence to demonstrate that the 11th-12th century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Shiva Nataraja] in its collection was stolen or illegally exported from India. The Gallery notes that criminal proceedings against Art of the Past dealer Subhash Kapoor are ongoing.

If, at the end of the legal process, the courts determine that this Shiva Nataraja was stolen and illegally exported, the Gallery will have been a victim of fraud. The Indian Government may request the Australian Government to return the work if it is found to have been stolen or illegally exported from India. The court has made no findings in relation to the sculpture.

In the meantime, the Gallery will continue to cooperate with the relevant authorities including the Indian High Commission.

 

 

 

 

Feds: Subhash Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

SAC Hayes seized itemsICE

Federal authorities announced this week that they have seized an estimated $100 million worth of ancient art linked to Subhash Kapoor, the New York art dealer currently facing trial in India — and an arrest warrant in the United States — for his alleged role in an international antiquities smuggling network.

For some perspective on that number, the FBI’s art squad has seized a total of $150 million in art since its inception in 2004, according to its website.

subhash kapoor“In our view, Mr Kapoor is one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world,” said Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent in Charge James T. Hayes (shown above with the seized objects.) “It’s one of our most significant antiquities and artifacts investigations that we’ve conducted in the history of this agency.”

Our past coverage of the Kapoor case and museums that have material from him can be found here.

The seizures revealed Wednesday were valued at $5 million and secured with cooperation from Customs and Border Protection, the Manhattan DA’s office, Interpol and Indian authorities. They include a 14th Century bronze Parvati figure from the Chola dynasty that was surrendered to ICE by an unnamed dealer in Europe. “Even though the statue had been placed on the Interpol Stolen Works of Art Database, the Parvati had passed through the hands of six different dealers and been given multiple layers of false provenance over the past six years,”  Hayes said. In addition, four bronze figures were seized in recent months that are believed to have been stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu.

Parvati ICEHayes stressed that the Kapoor investigation, dubbed Operation Hidden Idol, was on-going as agents continue to dig into Kapoor’s four decades as a Manhattan dealer whose gallery Art of the Past sold objects to museums around the world. Those include some of the more than 200 objects sold by Kapoor that we’ve identified in previous posts.

Hayes urged collectors and museums that had purchased objects from Kapoor to come forward and notify investigators.

“We ask that those collectors contact us,” Hayes said. “Our investigation is on-going and we’re looking to confirm the legitimacy of those objects. We have already received several calls from law firms representing people who had acquired pieces through Kapoor and were concerned about whether they were in possession of stolen goods.”

I took the opportunity to ask Hayes about ICE’s work combating the antiquities trade. To their credit, ICE has significantly ramped up their investigations of the illicit trade in recent years: more than 6,600 artifacts have been returned to 24 countries since 2007. But critics note that those forfeitures and flashy repatriation ceremonies with foreign officials have often not been followed by criminal charges against key players in the trade.

ICE“The focus is always to return stolen property to its rightful owners,” Hayes acknowledged, saying making criminal cases was desirable, but challenging. “You have to have a legal basis to prove those items, and you have to prove certain things and that proves very difficult. We’re dealing with laws around the world, in foreign courts and different jurisdictions.”

To be sure, ICE investigators have played an important role in several recent criminal investigations that led to guilty pleas, including Arnold Peter Weiss and Morris Khouli. “From where I sit, we’re very focused on putting those smuggling networks out of business,” Hayes said. “At the end of the day, our primary responsibility is to get stolen property back to its rightful owners.”

 

Kapoor Case: Investigation into Stolen Indian Idols Will Test Museum Transparency

Subhash Kapoor

The investigation of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, which made international headlines this week when federal agents raided his Manhattan warehouse, promises to shine a bright light on the illicit trade in antiquities smuggled out of India and other South Asian countries — and the dealer’s ties to prominent museums around the world.

New York authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor, the longtime owner of Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past, the same day that agents with Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement seized what they said were $20 million worth of stolen Indian artifacts from his Manhattan storage facilities. The seized objects include three Chola period statues that investigators say match objects in Interpol’s database of stolen works of art. Some objects were imported into the U.S. labelled “Marble Garden Table Sets.” An additional $10 million in antiquities were quietly seized from Kapoor in January of this year.

The seized objects are likely the tip of the iceberg of the dealer’s inventory. Since 1974, Kapoor has traded in ancient art from India, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world, as well as more recent art from India. A sample of his recent inventory can been seen in this 2011 catalog for Art of the Past.

Kapoor’s legal troubles extend far beyond New York. He was detained in Germany in October 2011 and this month extradited to Chennai, India, where he is facing criminal charges of being the mastermind of an idol smuggling ring that plundered ancient temples in Tamil Nadu. Kapoor has reportedly admitted to Indian police that he earned more than $11 million through the transport and sale of plundered Indian antiquities with his daughter and brother through a US corporation called Nimbus International.

Kapoor’s New York attorney Christopher Kane did not return a call to his cell phone on Sunday, but told the New York Post that Kapoor ““thinks of himself as a legitimate businessman, and I have no reason to think he’s not.” We’ll post any response we receive here.

As Kapoor’s legal case plays out in India, the spotlight now turns to the dozens of museums and collectors who did business with the dealer. Kapoor boasts in his bio that he has sold antiquities to a long list of leading museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco; The Art Institute, Chicago; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; Museum fűr Indische Kunst, Berlin; The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Investigators have tied a Dancing Shiva at Australia’s National Gallery to Kapoor, the New York Post reported.

In a press release, American investigators asked Kapoor’s clients to check their collections and be in touch. “Some of the artifacts seized during this investigation — which are stolen — have been displayed in major international museums worldwide,” ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations team said in a press release. “Other pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums. HSI will aggressively pursue the illicit pieces not yet recovered.”

The press, however, is not waiting for museums to come clean. The New York Times queried several museums last week about Kapoor objects in their collections. And on Saturday, The New York Post reported that a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance at the National Gallery of Australia has been tied to the investigation.

Not all museums that did business with Kapoor will be in trouble, of course. The Freer-Sackler Gallery, for example, told the New York Times that the only object they had acquired from Kapoor was a 20th century Indian necklace. The two objects in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s online catalog linked to Kapoor Galleries, operated by Kapoor’s brother Ramesh, are 17th century Indian paintings.

The Met’s response to the Kapoor investigation has been rather cavalier. Despite the admonition from the federal authorities, the museum will not review its Kapoor antiquities, Holzer told the Times, noting that the collection had long been posted on the Met’s website. One might think that recent history would have taught Met officials time and again that open possession of allegedly stolen property is no protection from claims both legal and moral.

The Met tried to deflect the questions from the press, telling the NY Times that most of the 81 pieces they had acquired from Kapoor were drawings from the 17th, 18th or 19th century highlighted in the 2009 Met exhibit, Living Line: Selected Indian Drawings From the Subhash Kapoor Gift. “They do not appear to be the type of items that they are worried about,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer.

But a search of the Met’s online catalog reveals several antiquities from Kapoor that authorities likely will be interested in — none have documented ownership histories dating to 1972, when India began controlling exports of ancient art.

1st Century BC ceramic Bengal pot (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

1st Century BC Bengal Vessel (2001 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

The God Revanta Returning from a Hunt (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Yakshi Holding a Crowned Child (2002 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Curiously, the Met also has five stone sculptures from Kapoor in its study collection, here and here, for example. They resemble ancient pieces but are labeled by the museum as “20th Century.” All were acquired in 1991. Did the museum acquire these objects from Kapoor, only to discover they were modern forgeries? We’ve asked Holzer for more information.

UPDATE: Harold Holzer tells us, “The group of 20th-century forgeries was accepted as a gift along with the other Kapoor gifts for our study collection, and always identified as such.”

To be fair to the Met, their online collection is far more transparent than that of several other American museums tied to Kapoor. The Toledo Museum of Art told the NY Times that it had received a gift of 44 terracotta antiquities from Kapoor in 2007. The only object that appears in a search of the museum’s online collection is a terracotta vessel purchased in 2008. The museum published the object in 2009 in a book of the museum’s masterworks, but offers no ownership history other than saying it was created in Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site north-east of Kolkata. Where was it before Toledo? What are the ownership histories for the other 43 objects acquired from Kapoor?

We’ve asked the Toledo Museum for that information, but apparently such requests are a low priority there. More than a month ago, we requested information about objects in their collection tied to two other dealers who investigators have connected to the illicit trade — Edoardo Almagia and Gianfranco Becchina. We have still not received a response.

Several years ago, the Getty Museum took a similar stance when faced with questions about objects in their collection. Stonewalling only convinced the public of the museum’s bad faith, and fueled the zeal of investigations by foreign governments and the media. Museums would be smart to heed those lessons from the Getty case, lest they relive the consequences.

Like the Almagia investigation, the Kapoor case will be a test for how transparent American museums can be in the face of unpleasant questions about ancient art in their collections. Will they take a proactive approach to investigating their collections, as they have done with objects with unclear provenance from World War II era? Or will they stonewall and encourage others to do the investigation for them?

Hat-Tips: Several people have been covering the Kapoor case for months, and you should read their detailed coverage. The Indian press, especially the Times of India, has been covering the case for months. Damien Huffer, whose excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under tracks the illicit antiquities trade in the Southern Hemisphere, was one of the first to pick up the story, a distinction that earned him repeated legal threats. Paul Barford’s blog has also diligently tracked reports on the case, adding his salty commentary along the way. Most recently, The New York Post broke the news of the Manhattan raids last week and has followed-up with some additional scoops.

UPDATE: Attorney Rick St. Hiliare has some very interesting thoughts on what the Kapoor case reveals about antiquities smuggling networks: “Examining the import and export methods surrounding the Kapoor case not only can aid police in the United States and India in their current investigations targeting the alleged idol thief, but it can help policymakers, criminologists, and scholars think about better ways to detect, uncover, interdict, and prosecute future crimes of heritage trafficking.” Hilaire also offers excellent analysis of the bills of lading allegedly used by Kapoor’s enterprises, revealing how these objects were able to enter the U.S. under false premises. He goes on to say the case might give a boost to our WikiLoot project, which is designed to suss out these very matters. Worth reading his entire post.