The End of the Beginning: NGA Returns Kushan Buddha and Two Kapoor Objects

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On Monday, the National Gallery of Australia returned three more antiquities to India in light of evidence – much of it first made public here – that they had been stolen from temples or archaeological sites, smuggled out of India and sold with false ownership histories by dealers now under criminal investigation.

In a ceremony in the Canberra museum’s Asian Gallery, the Australian Arts Minister Mitch Fifield handed over to his Indian counterpart Mahesh Sharma two sculptures purchased from the disgraced Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently standing trial in Chennai, India for his role as the alleged mastermind of an international smuggling ring.

A third sculpture, a Kushan-era sculpture of the Seated Buddha purchased from Manhattan antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener and once a centerpiece of the Australian collection, is being quietly returned out of the public eye. We first revealed the sculpture’s false ownership history in February 2015 and wrote about it in The Australian with arts reporter Michaela Boland.

The three sculptures join the museum’s Dancing Shiva, an Ardhanarishvara from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and other objects returned in recent years, the results of a looting controversy that has shaken Australia’s museums and raised far-reaching questions about their collecting practices. Some 280 additional antiquities at the NGA alone have been identified as having a clouded ownership history by an unprecedented provenance review that is on-going.

The Australian returns underscore the growing risks faced by museums and collectors who purchased Asian antiquities in recent decades from what they believed to be respectable dealers and auction houses. As we’ve chronicled here since 2012, on-going criminal investigations by authorities in the United States, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand and beyond have slowly unraveled the transnational smuggling networks that supplied those dealers.

Sources hint that the sweeping consequences of those investigations will soon become far clearer. Monday’s Australian returns, therefore, are best understood as the end of the beginning phase of those investigations, not the end.

Kushan Buddha

NGA Seated BuddhaThe Kushan sculpture of a Seated Buddha was likely returned out of the public eye on Monday because it no longer belongs to the museum. In March 2015, the museum announced that it had returned it for a refund to Nancy Wiener, the New York  owner of the Wiener Gallery who sold the statue in 2007 for $1.08 million. Wiener, in turn, agreed to “donate” it to India.

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At the time of the sale, 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. Instead, the NGA obtained a search certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects. As we’ve noted in the past, such declarations are largely useless for antiquities, yet that was the extent of the due diligence the museum conducted.

I first raised questions about the Buddha in 2012, after a source contacted me suggesting the statue’s ownership history had been falsified.  The NGA eventually released documents supporting that claim and belatedly contacted the expert who had first 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.

The return of the NGA’s Seated Buddha will put increased pressure others to reveal the ownership history of similar objects. Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum has refused to disclose the provenance that Wiener provided for a very similar sculpture of a Seated Buddha.

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Wiener has displayed images of a third Kushan Buddha on her gallery’s website. The current location of that Buddha is not known. Wiener has not responded to repeated requests for comment in the past.

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Another similar Buddha is on display at the Carlos Museum at Emory University. That Seated Buddha was acquired as a gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation, which is known to have acquired objects from Kapoor.

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Kapoor Objects

The two other objects returned Monday are both from Subhash Kapoor and were linked to objects stolen from Indian temples by researcher Vijay Kumar of the Indian Pride Project.

In 2005, Kapoor sold both objects to the NGA for $1.5 million. One was an 1800-year-old limestone carving depicting a scene from the life of Buddha.

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Kapoor told the museum the sculpture of the Buddha’s life had been in a private Japanese collection until 1999. But in July, we published this photo of the showing the unrestored sculpture as it appears in Kapoor’s archives, soon after it was stolen by thieves:

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The second Kapoor object due to be returned in the ceremony Monday was a 1000-year-old stone goddess Pratyangira, or Lion Lady. Kapoor claimed the sculpture had been in the collection of his onetime girlfriend Selina Mohamed since 1990. But as we first reported in July 2016, photos and records found in Kapoor’s files show the Pratyangira was in Mumbai, India in 2002.

Kumar has linked the object to Vriddhachlam, the same temple that the Art Gallery of New South Wales Shiva was taken from.

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Investigators believe Kapoor obtained the two objects from a Chennai art dealer named Deena Dayalan, who has operated an art gallery there since 1965 and is suspected of being a major player in the theft and smuggling of antiquities from the region. Indian authorities raided Dayalan’s properties in July and seized substantial evidence that may have led to Monday’s returns.

 

The Missing Link: Subhash Kapoor’s Suppliers in India Are (Finally) Getting Rolled Up

Update September 2016: Indian media report that a temple thief who worked for Deena Dayalan has been accused of murdering a fellow thief after a dispute over 13 idols they took from a temple in 2005. 

In a series of aggressive police raids over the past month, Indian authorities have disrupted a large network of alleged thieves and smugglers that for decades has plundered ancient temples from Chennai to Mumbai to supply the international art market.

The raids started on May 31st with the arrest of three men  at a Chennai warehouse (or godown, in the Indian parlance). The men were employees of an 84-year old art dealer named Deena Dayalan, who has operated a Chennai art gallery since 1965. Indian and American authorities believe Dayalan has long been a major player in the theft and smuggling of antiquities from South India.

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Deena Dayalan, via Indian Express

Dayalan disappeared after the raid, but turned himself in a few days later. He is said to have confessed during an interrogation and listed his associates and storage facilities across India. Subsequent raids on his properties uncovered hundreds of artifacts, including 49 bronzes, 71 stone carvings and 96 paintings and hundreds of smaller objects including ivory and wood carvings, lamps, figurines and ornamental pillars.

As reported by Frontline, The Hindu newspaper’s weekly magazine, policemen entering Dayalan’s house were stunned by the scope of his haul:

“It looked like a temple,” one investigator told Frontline. “Besides the idols and artefacts, there were pamphlets and books on temple idols and archtecture. The pillars of his house could be from some old temples. There were wooden sculptures and two elephant heads at the entrance,” said an officer.

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The raid was not Dayalan’s first run-in with the law.  Frontline reported the dealer was accused of being behind the 2005 break-in at the ancient Sri Narum Poonathar Temple at Paluvoor village in Tirunelveli, where 13 bronze idols were stolen. After the theft, an accomplice was murdered in a dispute over efforts to extract gold from two-and-a-half-foot bronze Nataraja, which was sawn in half in the process. Dayalan was released on bail, and the case is on-going.

UPDATE 7/4/16: The Tamil Nadu Idol Wing has seized 200 objects from Lakshmi Narayanan, an associate of Dayalan. Authorities found 56 were metal idols, 103 stone idols, and 47 temple vahanas (decorative platforms used to carry the deity in processions), The Hindu reports. Narayanan was arrested and will face charges of idol theft.

NagasamyThe police raids have now spread beyond Tamil Nadu are likely to continue in the coming weeks that authorities unravel the smuggling network and sort through voluminous evidence. Authorities have identified the courier service that Dayalan used to transport objects within India and seized his laptop, a desktop computer and storage drives. He allegedly labeled his stolen artifacts as modern handicrafts before they were smuggled out of India through Mumbai, where an unnamed “boss” in the illicit trade remains at large.

The investigation promises to give investigators what one Indian paper called “a glimpse of the man’s murky business with several smuggling cartels across the globe.” As The Hindu noted in an editorial, “The meticulously organised nature of this shadowy business hints at the deep and vast network of idol thieves who have plied their trade across not only Tamil Nadu but numerous other Indian States and even broader territories of South and South East Asia.”

The Kapoor Link

subhash kapoorInvestigators are still looking for links between Dayalan and one of his prominent American clients: Subhash Kapoor, the Manhattan antiquities dealer now standing trial in India for selling stolen antiquities to museums around the world. “We have not got clinching evidence to prove [his] link with the international idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor,” one investigator told the Times of India.

We can help: The following document links Dhayalan to Kapoor and hints at the extensive business relationship they are believed to have had.

Deenadhayalan letter

The document records Dayalan’s 2007 request for a payment of USD $11,400 from Kapoor’s Nimbus Import & Export through Selva Export, one of the Chennai export companies they used to transport artifacts. It is still unclear whether that amount was paid, what object(s) were purchased for the sum, and where those objects are today.

220-2004s-339x605_q85 But authorities have already identified Dayalan as the source of one stolen Kapoor object that has already been returned to India: The Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ sculpture of Ardhanarishvara, whose origins we revealed in 2013.

The AGNSW purchased the sculpture for $300,000 after Kapoor provided documents claiming it had left India in the 1970s. But Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project identified images that showed the sculpture in situ at the Vriddhachalam temple at least four years after 1970. A subsequent police investigation concluded it had been stolen in 2002 by Dayalan and replaced by a knockoff that villagers continued to worship.

Dayalan is believed to have supplied Kapoor with a number of objects from South India.

As Michaela Boland reported Sunday in The Australian, Dayalan is believed to have supplied Kapoor with two other objects that landed in the National Gallery of Australia: an 1800-year-old limestone carving depicting a scene from the life of Buddha, and a 1000-year-old stone goddess Pratyangira, purchased together from Kapoor in 2005 for $1.5 million. b8652fac07e4a2314495006b340b84d6

Kapoor told the museum the sculpture of the Buddha’s life had been in a private Japanese collection until 1999. But this photo, found in Kapoor’s archives, shows the unrestored sculpture above soon after it was stolen by thieves:

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A similar tale emerges on the NGA’s Pratyangira. Kapoor claimed it had been in the collection of Selina Mohamed (his onetime girlfriend) since 1990. But photos and records found in Kapoor’s files show the Pratyangira was still in Mumbai, India in 2002.

Below at left we see the NGA’s Pratyangira as offered in a Kapoor catalog, and at right the same sculpture before it left India. Note the identical missing segments from the figure’s left elbow.

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Amaravati Objects

Investigators believe Dayalan may have been behind looting of material from Amaravati, an important archeological site in Andhra Pradesh, where Dayalan grew up. Items seized from his warehouses include Amaravati architectural fragments.

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Dayalan may well have been the source of Amaravati fragments that Kapoor sold to the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.

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As we wrote in 2014, Kapoor sold the ACM a 3rd Century limestone fragment from Amaravati in October 1997 for $22,500. His accompanying description suggests he had detailed knowledge of the find spot:

“Examples from the Amaravait stuppa are extremely rare to find,” he wrote. “This particular piece does not come from the stuppa proper, but from the outer rail copings that surrounded the stuppa. It is an exceptional example in both its size and in its illustrative qualities…The iconography of this fragment makes this a most interesting piece from the Amaravati area.”

Long Time Coming

The Indian raids are long overdue. Records show American authorities provided detailed evidence about Kapoor’s Indian suppliers as far back as 2014. India’s failure to act on those leads, despite repeated urging from American authorities and others, has been one of several troubling signs in the long delayed criminal trial of Kapoor.

As Kumar recounted in an article about the investigation by ICE U.S. Special Agent Brent Easter: “For too long the red tape of Indian Bureaucracy and the ill equipped custodians have sent him on wild goose chases – including multiple weeks in hot and sultry India, with promises of arrests of the bad guys. Frustrating, when he has done all the hard work and with irrefutable proof of the bad guys shipping documents, email exchanges and bank transfers to see the patchy attempts in delaying and letting the actual crooks off the hook.”

It is likely no coincidence that the Indian raids were launched just days before U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the return of 200 looted antiquities to India during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The returns, many of which had been seized from Kapoor or his clients, may have been used as leverage with India to ensure Kapoor’s suppliers were nabbed. (On the right below is the Toledo Ganesh, which Kumar first revealed as looted in a 2013 post.)

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The raids have also underscored the need to expand India’s domestic enforcement efforts. The country’s only dedicated art police is the Tamil Nadu idol wing, led by Inspector General A G Pon Manickavel, is now chasing leads across India and international borders. The country desperately needs to develop a national police force dedicated to protecting its oft-purloined cultural heritage.

Government agencies should also work more closely with civil society groups like Kumar’s India Pride Project, which has worked tirelessly over the past years to identify stolen antiquities and bring them home, often while cajoling government officials to do more.

The willingness of Indian officials to crack down on the illicit antiquities trade within their borders will be measured largely by the aggressiveness with which they chase the leads they have gathered from Deena Dhayalan.

 

 

 

 

The Lessons of Palmyra: Iconoclasm in the era of Clickbait

Breaking IconoclasmLast December I was invited to Harvard to participate in a round table on ISIS and iconoclasm. The event, organized by archaeologist Bastien Varoutsikos and sponsored by Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology, sparked a fascinating discussion of iconoclasm through the ages, putting the destructive impulse of the Islamic State into a context that I, for one, had been missing.

The speakers included Harvard’s James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, who offered a reminder that iconoclasm is a central strand in Western history. “This is not the other,” Simpson said. “This is us, we’ve been here.” Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, discussed iconoclasm in ancient Egypt and how 3D technology was allowing us to recreate the destroyed past. Joseph Greene, also at the Semitic Museum, surveyed the destruction of museums –  repositories of cultural icons – across Syria and Iraq. And Matthew Liebmann reviewed the smashing of church bells – icons of Spanish colonization – during the Pueblo Revolts of 17th Century New Mexico. Moderating with Bastien was Clare Gillis, whose intrepid reporting on the ground in the region with her friend James Foley is captured in the must-watch documentary about his life and death, Jim.

My contribution to the panel was “ISIS and the Media: Iconoclasm in the Era of Clickbait,” a review of how the media has covered the iconoclasm of ISIS. In short, I argued that ISIS iconoclasm was largely (not exclusively) a propaganda effort, and that many of us in the media and social media became complicit in their crimes by spreading those images as clickbait.

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With the fall of Palmyra to Assad forces this month, Bastien and I decided to revisit the subject in an essay for this week’s The Art Newspaper. What follows are excerpts of that essay with a few slides from my Harvard presentation.

The early assessments [of damage by ISIS] contain several important lessons for those of us who watched the destruction of Palmyra in horror last summer—and then shared it virally on social media.

First, they lend credibility to on-the-ground reports during the city’s harrowing occupation that the Islamic State’s destruction of historical monuments was motivated less by twisted ideology than a far simpler craving for attention.

“In-country sources… have overheard Isil commanders comment that attacking the ancient monuments ‘makes the whole world’ talk about them,” noted a September report fr om the American Schools for Oriental Research, an archaeological group tasked by the US State Department with monitoring heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq.

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Notably, the destruction of historical sites had started months earlier, after international media outlets had collectively decided to stop broadcasting gruesome images of Isil hostage beheadings.

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If media attention was indeed what Isil had wanted, the destruction of Palmyra was a coup.

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Respected international media outlets republished Isil’s carefully choreographed shots of the detonation of the iconic Baalshamin Temple on social media as if they were news photos, not the propaganda of a terrorist regime.

In Palmyra, we first witnessed the collision of iconoclasm and clickbait.

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Increasingly, modern media is funded by clickbait and the advertising revenue it generates.

This fact was not lost on Isil, whose sophisticated propaganda machine has created pre-packaged viral content—slick YouTube videos, Facebook posts and 140 character Tweets—designed to be spread on the web.

It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes.

You can read the complete essay here. My thanks to Bastien for his help with it.

 

UPDATED > Asia Week Arrest: Japanese Dealer Convicted Of Selling Stolen Art

Japanese antiquities dealer Tatsuzo Kaku was arrested at Asia Week and charged on March 14th with criminal possession of a looted 2nd Century Buddhapada sculpture valued at more than $1 million, court records show.

UPDATE: On March 24, Kaku plead guilty to criminal possession of stolen property in exchange for a $5,000 fine and a sentence of time-served. Prosecutors explained the light sentence by saying Kaku had cooperated with on-going investigations. “This is part of a larger, ongoing investigation and there were cases where Mr . Kaku actually provided information,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos told the court.

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An image of the seized Buddhapada released by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office

Kaku, who owns Taiyo Ltd. in Tokyo, consigned the Kushan-period sculpture of the Buddha’s footprints to the Maitreya Inc. for sale at Asia Week.

Maitreya is owned by antiquities dealer Nayef Homzi, a prominent Manhattan dealer in Asian art who was previously director of the Doris Wiener Gallery, owned by the mother of Nancy Wiener, whose gallery was also raided this week. Homzi was the target of a federal investigation at last year’s Asia Week after he was caught trying to sell looted Indian sculptures valued at more than $500,000.

In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said, “The theft of antiquities has to be treated as the serious criminal matter it is. Our objective in these cases is to return the stolen item to the country where it was plundered from, and deter others from engaging in the illegal trade of cultural heritage.”

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Japanese antiquities dealer Tatsuzo Kaku

The story of the Buddhapada starts in 1982 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, when Kaku purchased the sculpture directly from smugglers, court records state. “When I saw the Buddhapada for the first time in Pakistan in 1982 they didn’t allow me to take photographs,” Kaku states in emails cited in the criminal complaint. “They didn’t tell me the exact place [where it was found.] As can be understood by the color of the stone, is an archaeological find from Swat.”

 

Kaku told authorities after his arrest this week that he knew it was illegal to purchase such material at the time, court records state. In 1975, Pakistan enacted the Antiquities Act, which bars the export of antiquities without state permission.

The sculpture was smuggled to Japan and sold to a private collector there. “After the collector passed away I sold it to Alexander Gotz in London in 2001. I bought it back from him in 2003 and sold it to another Japanese collector. In 2012 on request of the family of the collector who has gone on in years, the item has been entrusted with me…,” Kaku wrote in an email send in December 2015.

Kaku arranged to have the object shipped to New York City for its sale during Asia Week. He told authorities that he “knew it was illegal but that he loved antiquities so much and hated to see them destroyed,” court records state.

The sculpture was seized by authorities on March 14 and will be returned to Pakistan. Kaku was arraigned on March 14 and will next appear in a Manhattan court on March 25th.

At his March 24 sentencing, Kaku told the court through a translator that he believed was saving the looted objects he sold: “While I did stand to gain financially from the prospective sale of the Buddhapada, I was equally motivated by a life-long desire to preserve for posterity such works, which, if they were to remain in Pakistan, would, I believe, at best fall into disrepair and at worst be destroyed,” he said. “I now know, however, that it is not the right of any individual or institution to decide how the cultural patrimony of another country should be handled.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. had a different take on the case.

“Every year, fine art collectors from around the world flock to New York for Asia Week, where they spent a reported $360 million last year on Asian antiquities and art,” said  Vance. “With high demand from all corners of the globe, collectors must be certain of provenance before purchasing. I urge dealers and auction houses to take every necessary precaution to avoid facilitating the sale of cultural heritage stolen from other civilizations. If a provenance is in doubt, report it to law enforcement authorities.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asia Week Raids: New Details on the Christie’s Seizures

 

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This week, a series of five federal raids during New York’s Asia week led to the seizure of at least eight looted antiquities and the arrest of at least one dealer. This is the first of several posts that will discuss the alleged smuggling networks disrupted by those raids.

The Asia Week raids started on Friday at Christie’s, where federal agents seized two sculptures valued at $450,000 being offered as part of the private collection of London doctor Avijit Lahiri and his wife Bratatihis.

Court records reveal a link between the objects and a key supplier of Subhash Kapoor, the American antiquities dealer now on trial in India for his role in a global trafficking network.

Taken together, the Asia Week raids show that the 2012 seizure of Kapoor’s business records (as well as more than $100 million in looted antiquities he had in storage) have allowed investigators to identify looted antiquities being offered for sale on the American art market, much as the Medici, Becchina and Symes archives have done in recent years.

They also show that aggressive law enforcement investigations can have a meaningful effect disrupting those smuggling networks.

Rishabhanata

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It is not clear where Lahiri acquired the 10th century stele of Rishabhanata (shown above.) Based on its style, the piece was likely found in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, India. Christie’s stated it had been acquired in London by 1999. In 2006, Lahiri put it on consignment with the  London dealers Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd. Forge and Lynch stated it had been in London since 1989.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 5.40.50 PMLynch has had prior run-ins with the illicit antiquities trade in India. Court records filed this week quote a confidential informant telling authorities that Lynch “traveled to India roughly twice a year in the 1980’s while working for London Sotheby’s as the head of their Indian and Islamic Department in order to meet with Vaman Ghiya (an arrested antiquities dealer in India) to select recently looted artifacts for Sotheby’s auction.” Ghiya is a notorious convicted Indian antiquities smuggler who has been described as “the Indian Medici.” In 2007, he was profiled in the New Yorker story The Idol Thief. Lynch, who admitted hiding from Indian police in Ghiya’s house, left Sotheby’s after his dealings with Ghiya were exposed, but has continued to deal in Indian and other art since the 1990s.

In a statement, Forge and Lynch said they never sold the Rishabhanata: “In 2006, the Sandstone Stele of Rishabhanata was consigned to Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd by Dr. Lahiri, a London-based collector of Indian and Southeast Asian works of art. The sculpture was not sold and was returned to Dr. Lahiri. The sculpture was exhibited on asianart.com while on consignment with the firm. Prior to the consignment, Dr. Lahiri had informed Messrs. Forge and Lynch that the sculpture was purchased by him in London in 1989.The firm has never bought from or sold an object to Subash Kapoor.” We have asked Lynch for a comment on the Ghiya allegations and will post it when we receive one.

Kapoor’s files revealed the object’s earlier history: a photo (below) of the Rishabhanata was found in a folder labeled “Shantoo,” the nick name for an alleged Indian smuggler named Ranjeet Kanwat, court records state. The image showed the sculpture sitting on a bed of straw as it looked soon after being looted.

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vj poetryinstoneThe first to match the Shantoo image to the Lahiri stele was Vijay Kumar, an Indian art enthusiast and blogger in Singapore who has been quietly helping authorities track down Kapoor’s looted art.

Two years ago Kumar recognized the Rishabhanata offered by Lynch and Forge as the same one that Shantoo had offered to Kapoor. The problem: nobody knew where the piece was at the time.

When Kumar saw the Rishabhanata appear in the Christie’s catalog for its Asia Week sale, he alerted investigators, who organized the seizure.

Smugglers and dealers “are destroying destroying context, reducing our Gods to showcase curios and funding anti social elements,” Kumar said Friday when asked about his role. Countries of origin “must realise the value of what the USA is doing and support this with arrests and prosecutions.”

Revanta and his Entourage

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The second object seized from Christie’s, an 8th century panel showing Revanta and his Entourage (above), also appears to have originated with Shantoo, court records show.

Christie’s offered the piece, Lot 62, with a $300,000 estimate at its Asia Week sale, stating that it had been sold by Spink and Son auction house in London by 1999. Spink and Son has become a notorious name in recent years as the source of several looted objects, including the looted Khmer statue seized from Sotheby’s and returned to Cambodia in 2013. As Neil Brodie recently observed, Christie’s holds the original records of Spink’s Asian sales but has not released them publicly.

Kapoor’s files show the same Revanta relief was offered to him by “Shantoo” some time in the 1990s. The offer included this picture of the piece in the mud and surrounded by straw, suggesting it had recently been looted.

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Notably, several pieces missing from the relief in the Shantoo image are reunited with the sculpture by the time it is offered at Christie’s. In court records, authorities suggest that these “orphan” fragments may have been held back by looters to extract a higher price or to be sold separately.

On March 15, the Lahiri sale continued despite the embarrassing seizures. The auction netted nearly $2.4 million with the buyer’s premium.

In a statement Christie’s said it had no knowledge of the illicit origins of the sculptures. “Christie’s devotes considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects we offer for sale,” the statement read. “This is one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities, which is why Christie’s very much values building strong relationships with and between countries of origin, law enforcement, archeologists, and the collecting community.”

Busted: Asia Week Raids Reveal Scope of Illicit Trade in Asian Art

Federal agents raided the Nancy Wiener Gallery on Thursday, the latest move in an aggressive crack down on the trade in ancient Asian art that has targeted several leading dealers and auction houses and shaken up New York’s Asia Week art show.

Federal agents were given a court order to seize the following objects from the Wiener Gallery:

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A 1st Century red sandstone Kushan Relief valued at $100,000

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An 8th Century limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati valued at $35,000

 

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A 10th Century bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia valued at $850,000

Nancy WienerWiener is a second generation antiquities dealer who runs one of the country’s most prestigious Asian art galleries on Manhattan’s East 74th Street. Last year we revealed her role in the sale of a Kushan Buddha with a false ownership history to the National Gallery of Australia. Wiener agreed to refund the $1.08 million purchase price to the museum, which will soon return the sculpture to India.

Wiener is the latest target in a series of high profile Asia Week raids that were quietly orchestrated over the past year by special agent Brent Easter at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Hiddon Idol, began with Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India. As we’ve covered in a series of posts since 2012, authorities seized 2,622 objects valued at more than $100 million from Kapoor’s business and storage facilities. Perhaps more importantly, federal agents secured the cooperation of former Kapoor associates and seized decades of his business records, both of which have revealed a network of antiquities looters and smugglers across Asia whose objects Kapoor sold to museums and collectors around the globe.

subhash kapoorIn the years since the Kapoor seizures, Easter and Bogdanos have been investigating the collectors and museums who bought from Kapoor and the suppliers who smuggled looted antiquities for him. Easter’s work on the case is highlighted in this short documentary by director Jason Kohn.

This week’s raids at Asia Week netted 8 antiquities valued at more than $4 million seized in five separate raids. Taken together, they offer dramatic evidence that Kapoor’s corrupt suppliers were selling looted objects to other top dealers in Asian art.

We’ll have more details on the Asia Week seizures in the days ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crennan Report: The NGA’s Ex Post Facto Due Diligence Finds 22 “Questionable” Asian Antiquities

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In an unprecedented review of its Asian art collection, the National Gallery of Australia has determined that 22 of the 36 objects examined to date have “insufficient or questionable provenance documentation.”

Among the problematic objects are 14 that came from Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor’s Art of the Past, including the $5 million Dancing Shiva returned to India by Prime Minister Tony Abbott last year and several others we’ve highlighted in previous reports. Also highlighted in the report is the museum’s Kushan Buddha, which our report last year revealed had been sold the museum with a false ownership history by Manhattan dealer Nancy Wiener. Wiener agreed to refund the $1.08 million purchase price, and the NGA will return the sculpture to India this year.

Eight other questionable objects came through Wiener and another Manhattan Asian art dealerCarlton Rochell; the Swiss dealer/collector George Ortiz; and auction houses Spink and Son and Christie’s, among other familiar names. We’ll detail those objects in a subsequent report.

The ex post facto review is part of the museum’s Asian Art Provenance Project, which in the wake of an international looting scandal aims to assess and publish the collecting histories of all 5,000 art objects in the museum’s collection. It was sparked in part by our series of reports starting in June 2013 that revealed several of the museum’s prized Asian antiquities had been looted from Indian temples and sold by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor with false ownership histories.

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While years late, the Australian review goes beyond what American musuems undertook in the wake of similar looting scandals a decade ago, and sets an important new standard for due diligence: independent review and complete transparency with provenance.

 

Notably, the NGA asked an outside lawyer, Former Justice of the High Court of Australia Susan Crennan, to independently review and publish the project’s initial conclusions. In her 89-page report, Crennan reviews the relevant international laws and treaties before adopting a clear standard of review:

  1. does the object have a credible chain of ownership?
  2. the object was outside its probable country of origin before 1970, or was legally exported from that country after 1970?

For 22 of the objects, her answer was no.

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On several occasions she cited (without credit) images first published here showing NGA objects the in process of being smuggled out of India to Kapoor. “Dr [Michael] Brand, who supervised the [Getty’s return of 40 looted objects], stated that such photos were the most convincing pieces of circumstantial evidence of theft,” Crennan noted.

Sprinkled throughout her report is commentary that serves as common sense advice to those conducting their own due diligence:

  • “Circumstantial evidence can be as compelling as direct evidence, especially when several pieces of circumstantial evidence all support a particular conclusion.”
  • Due diligence should include “direct contact with any living consignor, or previous owner, particularly to elicit the date and circumstances of the export of a work from a country of origin. The absence of such details increases the risk that the [acquirer] will not obtain good title from a vendor.”
  • Even “reputable” dealers should be treated with skepticism, and the word of a dealer should not be taken as fact unless it can be independently corroborated.
  • Buyers should “require revelation of the identity of any consignor, or previous owners of a work of art (which can be conveyed confidentially). They might also require direct contact with any consignor, or previous owner, so as to be satisfied of the date and circumstances of any export of an object from a country of origin.” Auction houses in particular should be pressed to reveal their consignors.
  • “Listing such objects on a dedicated website achieves several desirable aims:  it constitutes notice to the whole world (including any true owner) of a museum’s custody and possession of an object;  it encourages exchange of provenance information between museums, especially those with objects of shared provenance; and it invites holders of a relevant interest, or relevant information, to come forward with that information.”

Buyers of antiquities would be wise to learn from the National Gallery of Australia’s example and follow these procedures before buying ancient art, not years later.

A copy of Crennan’s complete report can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Antiquity: Prison for Antiquities Dealer Behind Looting and Tax Fraud Scheme

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum during an early morning raid in Santa Ana Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008.

UPDATE: My article on the case has been posted at The Art Newspaper here.

UPDATE: The Markells will return 337 antiquities to Thailand as part of their sentencing agreement. Details on the seized objects are linked below.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand. See below for details.

Antiquities dealers Jonathan and Cari Markell were sentenced by a federal judge on Monday for their roles in the smuggling and tax fraud scheme that triggered sweeping federal raids on California museums in 2008.

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Jonathan and Cari Markell with the Dalai Lama

On Jan 24th, 2008, some 500 federal agents served warrants on 13 locations that received objects tied to the smuggling network, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the home of Barry MacLean, a private collector in Chicago.

The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.

That changed on Monday, when Jonathan Markell, 70, was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by a year of supervised release for making false declarations while importing antiquities from South East Asia. Markell and his wife Cari, 68, were also sentenced to probation for their role in a related tax evasion scheme in which looted antiquities were donated to local museums in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

The couple was also ordered to pay $25,000 to cover the costs of repatriating hundreds of antiquities seized by federal agents in raids on their Los Angeles home and gallery, Silk Roads Gallery.

Joyce White

Dr. Joyce White

Dr. Joyce White, a University of Pennsylvania expert on Ban Chiang culture who served as an expert for prosecutors on the case, said in a declaration that the 10,000 looted artifacts seized during the federal investigation represented as much as 175 times more material than what was recovered during scientific excavations of the site in the 1970s. The Markells were among the “key players” who developed a U.S. market for artifacts from the site, a demand that fueled rampant looting there.

In a Dec. 8 letter to federal judge Dean Pregerson, Jonathan Markell expressed remorse for his actions and pled for leniency in his wife’s sentencing. “My remorse over my dishonest actions will continue for the rest of my life, as my actions have put my family in jeopardy emotionally, socially, psychologically and financially for the past eight years,” wrote Markell, who graduated with an art history degree from UC Berkeley and got an MBA from Columbia University in arts administration. “I also owe an apology to the people whose heritage is the Ban Chiang civilization,” the world heritage site in Thailand where much of the material he sold was looted.

Operation Antiquity, the federal investigation of the Markells smuggling network, was one of the most aggressive government efforts to disrupt the illicit antiquities trade in history. For five years, Todd Swain, a federal agent with the National Park Service, operated undercover as an art collector to gather evidence against the Markells and their principal supplier, alleged smuggler Robert Olson. After several delays, Olson’s criminal trial is now scheduled for May 2016.

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Roxanna Brown

Roxanna Brown, a respected American expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, was caught up in the investigation and died in federal custody in 2008 after suffering a medical emergency after her arrest in Seattle. Court records show Brown provide falsified appraisals for the Markells and worked closely with Olsen to bring looted material into the United States. The federal government eventually settled a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.

In 2014, the Bowers Museum of Art agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. Other museums have waited for the outcome of the Markell’s criminal case before deciding what to do with objects from the couple and its network of donors.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand, according to a federal law enforcement official. The objects were among those targeted during federal raids on the museum in 2008. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment on the returns.

UPDATE: Jerry Coughlan, an attorney who represents the Mingei, confirmed the returns on Thursday, saying all 68 objects had been donated by the Markells. After the museum raids in 2008, the Mingei had offered to return the objects to Thailand and held them in storage while awaiting instructions from federal officials.

“Essentially, the government called and said it would not press charges against the Mingei but asked us to return items to Thailand,” Coughran said. “They were shipped in the last day or two and should be arriving soon.”

It is exceedingly rare for antiquities investigations to end in criminal convictions, and federal prosecutors hope the Markell convictions will act as a deterrent to the market.

“By holding US-based antiquities marketers fully accountable for their role in promoting the antiquities market and thereby stimulating the global destruction of irreplaceable heritage resources, this court has a special opportunity to dampen the trade and encourage others conducting similar enterprises to change their behavior and choices,” White testified.

Here are links to recent court records from the Markell case:

Here is a list of objects seized from the Markell’s home and gallery:

Markell seizures

Here is my past coverage of the Operation Antiquity case:

Here is Joyce White’s presentation on the case, “Hot Pots, Museum Raids and the Race to Uncover Asia’s Archaeological Past.”

 

Ball State’s Kapoor Return Reveals New False Provenance

M4930On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recovered a Chola period bronze from Ball State University’s Owsley Museum, marking yet another trail in the path of stolen Indian artifacts sold by dealer Subhash Kapoor.

In April 2005, the Indiana museum bought the Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati from Kapoor for $100,000, records show. Kapoor presented paperwork showing it had been in a private collection since 1969.

But images seized from Kapoor show he only acquired the bronze in 2004. At the time, it was covered in dirt and missing several pieces, as shown in the photo below.

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Questions about the bronze were first raised by our friend Vijay Kumar, who wrote about the sculpture in the Times of India  in July 2015.

The temple it was stolen from has yet to be identified. As Kumar noted,  that the base of the statue has an inscription in Tamil that reads: “Thipampaapuram Sivigai Naayagar.”

“There are a few temples in Tamil Nadu that have names such as Thirupampuram, Thipamburam and so on…It was sold in 2005, the same time when Sripuranthan and Suthamalli were looted. With the help of the public, the authorities including the police should take all efforts to bring home this statue.”

After museum officials were informed about Kumar’s article, they contacted the Indian Consulate in Chicago and cooperated with federal agents during their investigation. “Homeland Security Investigations has presented convincing evidence that the work was stolen and its documentation falsified,” said museum director Robert La France.

As we’ve reported, Kapoor and his staff often used the name of his girlfriend and other acquaintances to create a false ownership for recently stolen antiquities. The Ball State case reveals a new name used by Kapoor: Leo Figiel, a collector of Indian art who died in 2013 2004. The Peabody Essex Museum, which recently returned a Kapoor object, acquired Figiel’s collection of antique Indian bronzes in 2006.

Figiel provided Kapoor with this false letter claiming he acquired the bronze from “a European collection in 1969.” It was not the only Kapoor object for which Figiel provided a false provenance, as we’ll show in the coming weeks.

 

050413 Chola Shiva Parvati

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.

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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.