UPDATED: In recent years Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum has acquired eight objects from Art of the Past, the Manhattan antiquities gallery specializing in South Asian art that is now the focus of an international investigation into its owner’s alleged ties to the illicit antiquities trade.
The now shuttered gallery is owned Subhash Kapoor, the American antiquities dealer of Indian extraction who has sold ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world since 1974. As we’ve reported previously, Kapoor was arrested in Germany last year and extradited to India, where he facing charges of trafficking in looted Asian antiquities and being the mastermind of a network of temple looters operating in Tamil Nadu. In July, American authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor and seized $20 million worth of ancient art from his Manhattan warehouse. Indian investigators have also asked authorities in Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom for help with their expanding investigation.
We’ve previously traced more that 200 Kapoor objects to museums around the globe. We can now add the Royal Ontario Museum to that list. Six of the Kapoor objects at the ROM are modern works on paper, a specialty of Kapoor’s that are not the subject of the current investigation. Two other objects, however, may be of interest to investigators.
The first is a Ghandaran stone reliquary from the 1st to 2nd century A.D.. in the shape of a stuppa that was featured in the museum’s 2004-2005 newsletter. “Purchased through the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, the ROM acquired a beautiful Buddhist Reliquary dated to the 2nd century CE,” the newsletter said. “The outer container is made of steatite, a grayish stone common to the region of Gandhara, in presentday western Pakistan. The inner container is carved from rock crystal and is decorated with stunning gold granular ornamentation, a testament to the level of skill in ancient gold craftsmanship. The ROM’s reliquary would have contained the relics (ash, bone, precious metals) of an important Buddhist monk and would have been placed in the centre of a large burial mound, called a ‘stupa.'”
UPDATE: In response to our questions, a museum spokeswoman said, “The Gandharan Reliquary was in the personal collection of a well-known US-based collector since 1969. A signed letter by the owner is on file at the museum and ownership was confirmed through direct contact with the collector.” We’ve requested the identity of the collector and any underlying documents to support that provenance and will post them when we have them.
The second Kapoor object of interest is an 18th century bronze figure of Krishna Venugopala. While not ancient, it is listed as coming from Orissa or Bengal, India. It is not clear when the piece left India or whether it received the required export permit. Kapoor is alleged to have used false export permits to disguise stolen cultural objects as garden furniture or modern handicrafts.
UPDATE: The ROM museum apparently purchased this object in 2006 with no record of legal export. A museum spokeswoman tells us: “The statue of Krishna from Bengal or Orissa was in a UK-based collection since 1970. There is no documentation on file at the museum and we continue to investigate its provenance further.” We’ve requested details on the UK-based collection and will post it here when we get it.
Beyond the objects purchased from Kapoor, the museum has an extensive collection of
recently acquired objects from South Asia that are of interest, some of which were acquired recently. (In an email, a museum official notes the South Asia collection has been built since the founding of the museum, with most of the historical collection coming into the museum in the 1920s to 1950s.)
For example, this 10th century figure of a yogini from the Chola dynasty of Southern India was acquired in 1956
in 2004. It is described by the museum as “part of a dispersed set of goddessed [sic] that occupied a temple in the Tamil region of southern India,” an area known for the rampant looting of temple idols. When did the group of objects leave the temple? Does it have a legal export permit from India? The museum is silent on these questions.
UPDATE: A museum official notes the object was acquired in 1956. “It is part of a set of similar sculptures dispersed across museums in India (Government Museum Chennai), Europe (British Museum, Guimet), and North America (Asian Art Museum San Francisco, Freer Sackler Galleries, and others). This set has been extensively documented and its collecting history published in a new book: Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis by Padma Kaimal, 2012.”
Then there’s the ROM’s bronze dancing Shiva from Chola dynasty of the 12th century A.D., also from the Tamil region. The Shiva bears some resemblance to those that Indian authorities said were allegedly removed from Tamil temples by looters in recent years. (One has allegedly been linked to Australia’s National Gallery of Art.) The ROM’s description of the object notes, “Such bronze sculptures were predominantly produced from the Chola period onward, a dynasty of kings that ruled over much of southern India from the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD. They were housed in temples and regularly brought out and decorated for processions.” Again, when did this particular object leave India, and did it have a valid export permit? UPDATE: A museum official says the Nataraja was acquired in 1938.
In a statement about the Kapoor objects, museum spokeswoman Shelagh O’Donnell said, “Following museum policy, each acquisition was carefully investigated in terms of quality, authenticity and provenance. The antiquities in this group have been documented as having acceptable provenance from published auctions or from known private collections. The modern works comply with all current Indian export regulations. The ROM is in the process of re-examining the documentation for this group of objects.”
On October 3rd, we asked the ROM to provide the underlying documentation supporting the ‘acceptable provenance’ for several of the above objects. We have not received a response. We’ll let you know when we learn more.
Here is the full list of Kapoor objects released by the museum: