Tag Archives: India

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.

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.

A Blast from the Past: “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol”

 Imagine you’re a thief about to pull a heist at the local temple.

You can’t wait to get your hands on all those statues, altarpieces, gold. In the middle of the night, you sneak up to the entrance and…

(in a different voice, the Temple Guardian speaks.) ‘YE-AHH! BEGONE THIEF! HA HA. THE TEMPLE IS SAFE ONCE MORE.’

So begins the children’s audio guide for the Norton Simon Museum’s statue of a 10th century sandstone temple warrior from Koh Ker, the one-time capital of the Angkor Kingdom in Cambodia.

Originally, the statue was a temple guardian, “placed outside a house of worship to protect it from evil spirits,” the guide explains. “This is only part of the sculpture…When it was new, it had hands and feet of course.”

The evil spirits apparently won, because the guardian is now in Pasadena, and the Cambodian temple it once guarded has been thoroughly looted. But those missing feet were found in 2007, along with a second pair that experts say belong to a matching statue now at Sotheby’s. Last week, the federal government filed a lawsuit seeking to seize the statue from the auction house on behalf of the Cambodian government.

There is little question that both statues were stolen — their abandoned feet bear witness to the crime. The only question is when: sometime over the past 1,000 years, as Sotheby’s suggests. Or — as Cambodia, the US government and archaeologists suggest — more recently, in the turbulent 1960s or 1970’s when civil unrest in Cambodia fueled unprecedented looting. If the later, both statues could be considered stolen property under U.S. law.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby's, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

Norton Simon himself was not coy about the illicit origins of his impressive collection of Asian art, which today is a highlight of his Pasadena museum. In a 1973 article headlined, “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol,” the New York Times asked Simon about a bronze Hindu deity of Siva he had just purchased for $1 million. India claimed it had been ripped from a temple and smuggled out of the country. His answer:

“Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” said Mr. Simon in a telephone interview. “I spent between $15- and $16-million over the last two years on Asian Art and most of it was smuggled. I don’t know whether it was stolen.”

The same would appear to apply to the Khmer temple guardian that he bought three years later from a New York dealer William H. Wolff.

A Norton Simon spokeswoman said in a statement that “since [1976], the museum has proudly displayed this important example of Cambodian art, and has had the privilege of showing it to the Director of the National Museum of Cambodia (who we understand is now the Director General of Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts).  In more than three decades of ownership, the Foundation’s ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned.”

Until now, that is. Cambodian officials told Voice of America this week that they will seek the return of the Norton Simon statue and countless other missing pieces if their claim for the statue at Sotheby’s is successful. See:

Much of the evidence cited against the statue at Sotheby’s would seem to apply to its brother in the Norton Simon Museum. Indeed, Sotheby’s apparently linked the two objects to a common site in their own proposal to sell the statue:

An almost identical figure, now resting in the collections of the [deleted] Museum…allows one to conjure up a wonderful vision of the two statues together perhaps lining an entrance way leading to the dark temple interior and the sanctuaries of the gods.

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

A wonderful vision, indeed — and a surprisingly accurate description of their original context at Koh Ker before they were stolen.

Why hasn’t Cambodia previously claimed the statue? Internal Sotheby’s emails cited in the federal suit suggest an answer. A scholar initially warned Sotheby’s not to offer the statue for sale publicly because it was “definitely stolen” from Koh Ker. But she changed her stance after consulting with Cambodian officials:

…There are no plans at all for Cambodia or the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh to attempt to ask for anything at the [deleted] Museum or the [deleted] etc. They would also have to ask for Khmer material in the [deleted], and they want to continue to get French support.

It appears that Cambodia was reluctant to risk access to foreign aide over a fight for its stolen cultural heritage. But this calculus may be changing.

This raises an interesting question: Should the Norton Simon and other museums with such objects wait to see if they are sued in federal court? Or should they move to return stolen objects on their own initiative?

Norton Simon himself had an interesting take on that issue in that same New York Times article:

If it did some good, I would return it. If there were reason and probability that smuggling could be stopped, I would do it. It would do a lot to establish a constructive relationship between nations….Looting is a terribly destructive process. In cutting works out of temples, thieves mutilate them. Also, US Customs should not allow works into this country unless they have a total clearance from the countries of origin. If we could get such a clear cut certification to stop smuggling, I would send it back. If not, I’ll probably keep the piece.