Tag Archives: National Gallery of Australia

The Seated Buddha Goes Home: Nancy Wiener and National Gallery of Australia Will Return Sculpture to India

NGA Seated Buddha

The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday that its prized second century Seated Buddha would be “donated” to India after the museum struck a deal for its return with Nancy Wiener, the New York gallery owner who sold the statue.

Under the deal, Wiener will reimburse the NGA the $1.080 million paid for the statue in 2007 and arrange for its return to India, the museum said in a statement.

The arrangement marks a rare case of a museum making good on a dealer’s good title guarantee at the time of sale.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 7.14.12 PM

I first raised questions about the Buddha in 2012, after an anonymous source contacted me suggesting the statue’s ownership history had been falsified. After the NGA released documents supporting that claim, the museum contacted the expert who had authenticated the sculpture, Donald Stadtner. Stadtner raised further questions about the sculpture’s origins, claiming in an email to museum officials that British collector Douglas Latchford had boasted in a meeting that he had “found Nancy a provenance” for a related Kushan Buddha that Wiener sold to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum. Through his attorneys, Latchford has denied ever meeting Stadtner.

Douglas LatchfordThe National Gallery of Australia’s release does not resolve the questions about the sculpture’s provenance. “In 2007, the NGA regarded the information available about the sculpture as adequate at the time of its purchase with documented provenance outside India in 1964-66. As a result of new research undertaken by the NGA, particularly in light of the recently published Australian Government Guidelines for Collecting Cultural material, the NGA considers it unclear as to whether the work’s export from India complies with current Australian law. Given the passage of time, the NGA is of the view that further clarification on this issue is unlikely. Accordingly, the NGA and NWG have agreed that the best course is to donate the work to a museum or other cultural institution located in India.”

Nancy WienerWiener, who has not responded to requests for comment, stood behind the story she provided the museum in 2007, the statement said.  “While the [Nancy Wiener Gallery] affirms its confidence in the provenance of the Seated Buddha, it is dedicated to its relationship with the NGA. Therefore, the NWG has offered to refund the purchase price of the sculpture to the NGA, and to join with the NGA in donating the work to an appropriate Indian cultural institution. Both parties are now working collaboratively in the spirit of good will and with Indian officials to determine an appropriate destination in India for this great work.”

The Buddha’s return sets a new standard for Australian museums that goes far beyond any reforms adopted in the United States. Guidelines adopted by Australian museums in the wake of the Subhash Kapoor scandal require objects to have valid export licenses from their country of origin.

If that standard is applied retroactively, as it has been in the case of the Kushan Buddha, many more objects in Australian museums are likely to be sent home.

The Kushan Buddhas: Nancy Wiener, Douglas Latchford and New Questions about Ancient Buddhas

NGA Seated Buddha

In 2005, Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum was offered a rare sculpture of a Seated Buddha carved from red sandstone in the second century. It was from India’s ancient city of Mathura, the second capital of the Kushan empire, and one of only a handful of such sculptures to have appeared on the market in recent years.

Nancy WienerThe dealer selling the sculpture was Nancy Wiener, whose eponymous Manhattan gallery has been a leading seller of Asian art for years. Her clients include the Metropolitan Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Asia Society and prominent private collectors. Wiener’s mother Doris was a renowned Asian art dealer who Christies’ called “one of the most distinguished tastemakers in this collecting category.”

The Royal Ontario was keen to buy the Seated Buddha – until curator Deepali Dewan called the expert who had authenticated the sculpture for Wiener. Donald Stadtner, an authority in Indian art, told Dewan that he believed the statue had been illegally exported from India and given a phony ownership history to cover its tracks.

urlAfter talking to Stadtner, the Royal Ontario Museum decided pass on the sculpture, Dewan confirmed in a recent email. Months later, Wiener offered it to the National Gallery of Australia for USD$1.2 million.

No Questions Asked at the National Gallery of Australia 

Wiener told NGA officials she had purchased the sculpture in 2000, museum records show. Previously, Wiener said, the sculpture had belonged to an Englishman named Ian Donaldson, who claimed to have purchased it while posted in Hong Kong between 1964 and 1966. She provided the museum with a 1985 Certificate of Ownership signed by Donaldson. It was the only record of sculpture’s ownership history, but the museum did not attempt to contact Donaldson.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 7.13.35 PM

In July 2007, Wiener sent an invoice to the NGA for the discounted price of USD$1,080,000 and a signed guarantee offering to reimburse the museum if the provenance were ever proven false.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 7.14.12 PM

Two months later, as preparations for the Buddha’s acquisition were under way, the National Gallery of Australia received a search certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects. Such declarations are largely useless for looted antiquities – as the certificate notes, “the database does not contain information on illegally exported artifacts unless they have been reported to us as stolen.”

Yet this was the extent of the museum’s due diligence. Museum officials never contacted Stadtner, whose authentication report for the Seated Buddha was among the paperwork provided by Wiener. The funds for the purchase were provided in part by Ros Packer, wife of the late media tycoon Kerry Packer and one of Australia’s most prominent philanthropists.

An Anonymous Tip

In 2012, I got an anonymous tip that the sculpture’s ownership history had been fabricated. The source identified the dealer as Nancy Wiener, and suggested the sculptures had been illegally exported from India. I shared the tip with Michaela Boland at The Australian, and in May 2013 we requested the sculpture’s ownership history from the NGA. The museum claimed the information was secret: “We do not provide details of this nature regarding acquisitions from the national art collection for clear commercial in confidence reasons,” museum spokesman David Edhill wrote.

Boland filed a Freedom of Information request for the records. In the fall of 2014, the Australian courts ruled in our favor and released copies of the NGA’s records – with the name of the dealer and former owner redacted. In November, we co-wrote a story in Australian about the case, linking the anonymous tip to the account in the museum records.

The Latchford Connection

In October 2014, as the records were released, the NGA began investigating the ownership history of the sculpture. It was only then that an NGA curator contacted Stadtner and asked him for any information he had about the sculpture’s origins.

In a Nov. 5th email to museum officials, Stadtner explained his long-held suspicions about the sculpture. The NGA’s was the second Kushan Buddha that Stadtner had examined for Wiener, he explained. The first he had studied in 1999 before it was sold to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum.

ACM seated buddha

Some time after, on a visit to Bangkok, Stadtner said he met with the Bangkok-based British collector Douglas Latchford. The main topic of conversation was Latchford’s role in the sale of fake Burmese bronzes, Stadtner said, one of which had been sold to the ACM in Singapore in 2000. While there, however, the two men discussed the ACM’s Seated Buddha.

“During the course of a long conversation (and boasting) Latchford said, en passant, that he found Nancy a provenance for the Buddha which by then was in Singapore,” Stadtner told  NGA officials in the email. “I recall that he said that he found ‘an old India hand’ in ‘Hong Kong’. By an old India hand I interpreted this to mean an older English gentlemen who had served in India but who was based then in Hong Kong.”

latchford.jpbStadtner was convinced the NGA’s Seated Buddha, sold several years later, had been offered with the same false story. “I strongly suspect that the ‘old India hand’ in H.K. will appear in the paperwork for both Buddhas, if my memory was correct and indeed he found this fellow in H.K. to provide the bogus certificates to Nancy for at least the Singapore Buddha.”

The NGA’s records, which Stadtner had not seen, appear to support his story: Wiener told the museum that the Buddha had belonged to a British ex-pat living in Hong Kong. Did Donaldson own the statues? What is his connection to Latchford? It is difficult to know: Andrew Ian Donaldson, listed at the same Hong Kong address supplied by Wiener, died in 2001, records show.

Latchford, whose alleged role in the Seated Buddha transactions has not been previously reported, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His London attorney, however, was in touch. “Our client does not know Mr Stadtner, nor has he ever met him,” wrote Amber Melville-Brown of Withers LLP. “He is completely at a loss as to why Mr Stadtner would make such false assertions.”

Stadtner told me he has very specific memories of his visit to Latchford’s Bangkok apartment. I asked to interview Latchford to clarify the confusion. “My client is, as I have already pointed out, a frail, elderly gentleman in poor health,” wrote Melville-Brown. “Accordingly, it would be quite inappropriate for him to be interviewed by you about this matter and he is unable to do so.”

In 2012, Latchford was identified in federal court records as a middleman in the trafficking of looted antiquities from Southeast Asia. Authorities allege Latchford knowingly purchased two looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network” and conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for them. The case was a civil lawsuit, and Latchford was not charged with a crime. But after a lengthy legal battle, Sotheby’s agreed to return its sculpture to Cambodia. Soon after, the Norton Simon Museum, Christie’s auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all returned sculptures tied to Latchford. UPDATE: The Cleveland Museum returned another looted Khmer sculpture linked to Latchford in May 2015.

Melville-Brown,Latchford’s attorney, has previously asked me to remove our past coverage of Latchford’s role in the Sotheby’s case. I have declined, noting that the account is based on federal court records protected under U.S. law.

Stonewalling in Singapore

The Asian Civilizations Museum has refused to release the ownership history for its Seated Buddha. When pressed repeatedly, a spokesperson for the museum said, “The Kushana Buddha was purchased from a respected international dealer in the year 2000, who had purchased it from a private collector who had owned the piece since the 1960s.” Is that private collector Ian Donaldson? The museum won’t say.

Last fall, I went by Nancy Wiener’s Manhattan gallery to see if she could clarify the history of the Seated Buddha sculptures. Her gallery manager refused me entry and claimed he did not know how to put me in touch with Wiener. She has not responded to emails.

In January, the Times of India reported that Australian authorities had concluded that the NGA’s Seated Buddha was stolen from an archaeological site and agreed to return it to India. National Gallery spokeswoman Alison Wright would neither confirm nor refute that account, but acknowledged that the museum “commenced legal discussions” with Wiener in November. “Those discussions have not yet concluded and therefore we are not able to comment further,” she said.

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

 

10659220_10201644068902621_1786176913746819236_n

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

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

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

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

shiva.kapoor

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

cropped-1-m58351.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

shiva.kapoor

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

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

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

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

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

NGA’s Due Diligence Memo 

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

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

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

Among the revelations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ronradford_wideweb__470x299,0

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

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

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

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

Shiva Natraja1

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

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

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

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

Here is the NGA’s Shiva on display today:

NGA shiva

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

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

idol_1781732f

Radford’s still not convinced.

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

A Tale of Two Fake Provenances

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

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

shiva prov mehboug

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

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

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

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

Who is Raj Mehgoub?

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

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

Magoub Philly

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

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

9910 60th Ave Queens

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

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

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

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

Apparently it was.

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:

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

UPDATE 3/13/15: Selina Mohamed pled guilty in December 2013 to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge as part of a plea agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, reports Rick St. Hilaire. She was sentenced on March 12, 2015 to conditional discharge.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

152676

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

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

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

harn vishnu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwarapalas prov

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

We’ve posted the criminal complaint against Mohamed here:

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: 

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.”

durga

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.

128702

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:

Sambandar

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.”

pratyangira

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.”

143989

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.

bodhisattva

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.”

Christ crucified1

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.

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

imgresThe 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.)

UPDATE 8/18/14: Indian authorities have concluded the Ardhanarishvara sculpture described below was stolen from the Vridhdhagiriswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu India in 2002. The thieves have not been identified, but two years later Kapoor sold the sculpture to AGNSW for $400,000 with a false ownership history.

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.