Tag Archives: Brent Easter

UPDATED > Manhattan Dealer Nancy Wiener Arrested: Criminal Complaint Alleges Sweeping Conspiracy to Sell Stolen Asian Art Through Major Auction Houses

Nancy WienerAntiquities dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested Wednesday morning in Manhattan and charged with conspiring with international smuggling networks to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of stolen Asian art thru leading auction houses.

Wiener is a second generation dealer who runs one of the country’s most prestigious Asian art galleries on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For nearly three decades, the Nancy Wiener Gallery has sold Asian art to private collectors and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia Society, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the National Gallery of Australia and the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore, according to her website.

The criminal complaint filed after her arrest on Wednesday alleges Wiener was part of a sweeping conspiracy to funnel stolen artifacts into the art market. For decades, the complaint alleges, Wiener has bought stolen and looted antiquities from thieves and smugglers across Asia; sent them to restorers to erase evidence of their theft; and then laundered them through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, using straw buyers to create false ownership histories and artificially set market prices.

The 12-page complaint, signed by ICE Special Agent Brenton Easter, cites “tens of thousands of pages of emails, documents and photographs” recovered during more than 50 search warrants carried out since 2007. Easter has been the lead investigator on Operation Hidden Idol (the Subhash Kapoor case), Operation Mummy’s Curse and most of the other prominent federal investigations of the illicit antiquities trade in recent years. The prosecutor on the case, Manhattan Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, also has a long track record disrupting antiquities smuggling networks and is the author of the book Thieves of Baghdad.

Wiener’s attorney, Georges G. Lederman, told the New York Times his client had surrendered voluntarily. “We are examining the charges and will respond at the appropriate time,” Lederman said.

I’ve asked Sotheby’s and Christie’s for comment on the allegations. I’ll post their responses here when I receive them.

The Seated Buddhas

NGA Seated Buddha

The Seated Buddha in Australia

Wiener’s alleged ties to the black market first came to light in 2014 when Michaela Boland and I reported in The Australian newspaper that the dealer had provided a false ownership history when she sold a $1.08 million Seated Buddha to the National Gallery of Australia. As I detailed later, the story started in 2012 when a source tipped me off that Wiener had bought the Australian Buddha – and a matching one that she sold to the Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum – from an Indian antiquities trafficker.

Australian authorities conducted their own investigation and reached the same conclusion. They returned the Buddha to India earlier this year, and Wiener was forced to refund the purchase price.

Wednesday’s criminal complaint cites the two Seated Buddhas as evidence of Wiener’s criminal conduct and reveals important new details about their illicit origins.

070507_r16199_p646-320.jpgShe sold the first to Singapore’s ACM without being asked to provide its ownership history, the complaint states. After I repeatedly asked the museum to release its records (to no avail), the museum appears to have contacted Wiener for additional information.

According to the complaint, Wiener gave the ACM an evolving series of stories about its previous owner: first she said it had been in a “European collection” for decades; then she said the owner’s father had acquired the piece in India. Finally, she named the former owner and said he had purchased it while stationed in Vietnam in the 1960s. That name, Ian Donaldson, is the same false story she provided to the National Gallery of Australia.

In fact, records seized during the investigation show that Wiener acquired them both from none other than Vaman Ghiya, the notorious Indian idol thief whose criminal case was profiled in the New Yorker in 2007.

Photos of the ACM Buddha seized during the investigation show it “wet as it lay on a dirty floor in front of a black backdrop” – presumably as it appeared shortly after being looted from India’s ancient city of Mathura, the second capital of the Kushan empire. The sculpture remains on display in the Singapore museum.

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Auction House Due Diligence in the Spotlight

While they are not accused of criminal conduct, Sotheby’s and Christie’s play a prominent role in the alleged criminal conspiracy described in court records filed Wednesday. Several objects illustrate how the auction houses allowed Wiener to launder looted antiquities by accepting false ownership histories without question.

007n08727_5vsw6When Wiener consigned a Cambodian sculpture of 11th century Shiva at a 2011 auction at Sotheby’s, the auction house noted that cracks in the sculpture “had been dressed up with plaint splatters to mask repairs” – a clear sign of looting, according to the complaint.

Sotheby’s nevertheless accepted Wiener’s word that it had been out of Cambodia since 1968 and required no documentation from the dealer to support the claim. When selling Lot 29 at the March 24, 2011 sale, Sotheby’s described it as coming from a “Private English Collection, acquired 1960s.” “This exceptional figure exemplifies the highest achievements of the Baphuon School and is arguably amongst the best of its kind,” the catalog noted. It sold for $578,500.

In fact, there was no English collection, the complaint alleges. Seized emails show Wiener and a co-conspiritor (“an antiquities dealer based in London and Bangkok”) had acquired the sculpture “direct from a supplier, and not through a dealer” for half its market price.  They sent it to London to be “cleaned, put together and mounted,” all evidence, the complaint alleges, that it had been recently looted.

I’ve asked Sotheby’s attorney (and former federal prosecutor) Jane Levine for a comment and will post it when I hear back.

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The Doris Wiener Collection

Christie’s is also singled out in the complaint for the sale of nearly 400 objects – many of them allegedly looted or stolen – that had belonged to Nancy Wiener’s mother Doris, a prominent dealer in her own right who pioneered the Asian art market in the 1960s and 70s’s with sales to prominent collectors like John D. Rockefeller and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Doris continued to deal until her death in 2011, when Nancy inherited her mother’s collection and allegedly destroyed all records of the smugglers from whom they had been acquired. Wiener intially tried to consigned the collection for sale at Sotheby’s, but was turned away because she could not provide their ownership history. So Wiener turned to Christie’s, which according to the complaint only required evidence that the objects had been on the market since 2000 – a full 30 years later than the 1970 standard required by most museums and archaeologists.

Even that low bar was too high for Christie’s, which allegedly only asked Wiener for documentation on the top 25 of the sale’s 380 lots. Wiener told Christie’s 10 had come from Spink and Son, a defunct London auction house that has frequently been linked to looted antiquities. Several others had previously been sold at auction by Doris and re-acquired in “straw purchases” designed to create the impression of good provenance.

This dodgy track record for a fraction of the lots appeared to be enough for Christie’s, which auctioned all 380 lots on March 20, 2012 for a total of nearly $12.8 million dollars.

UPDATE: On December 28, Christie’s released a brief statement on the arrest of Nancy Wiener: “We are aware of these very serious allegations against the defendant and are monitoring the legal proceedings closely. We will withhold further comment until the appropriate time.” I’ve asked whether they will notify customers who purchased objects from the Doris Wiener sale and will post a response when I receive it.

Dozens of the objects sold in that sale have now been tied to smuggling networks reaching from Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, Cambodia and Thailand. We’re report details of those networks soon.

A copy of the criminal complaint can be read here:

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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.

ACM frags

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.)

lynch modi

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gloves Come Off: Amid Accusations of Deceit, Sotheby’s Lawsuit Reveals How U.S. Built Its Case

Duryodhanna

Last week the tables were turned on the U.S. government as documents filed in court by Sotheby’s revealed the private deliberations of American investigators, whose zeal for the return of an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer statue often appears to exceed that of Cambodian officials.

In December, we wrote that filings in the court battle between the U.S. government and Sotheby’s over the statue had revealed the inner workings of the top international auction house. Last November we described how the case had revealed the underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade.

Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn. The exhibits, obtained through discovery in late August and attached to a Sept. 9th Sotheby’s motion for judgment, provide a rare window into the investigation of a major international cultural property case whose outcome will likely hold sway for years. The emails detail how Interpol officials worked close with Brent Easter, an investigator of cultural property crimes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to build a legal rationale for the statue’s seizure on behalf of Cambodia. The process eventually involved officials at the U.S. Department of State, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government. At one point, Easter asked Cambodian officials to stop negotiating with Sotheby’s for the statue’s voluntary return so that the U.S. government could purse its legal case against the auction house.

Read the correspondence:

Sotheby’s cites the records in asking the judge for a ruling on the case without the need for further discovery. The auction house says Easter claimed to have probable cause for seizure of the statue when in fact he was still scrambling to cobble together a legal theory to support Cambodia’s claim. The auction house also cites an expert on French law in arguing that the government’s legal theory — which relies in part on colonial-era decrees for Cambodia’s ownership claim — is bogus.

Read Sotheby’s motion:

The government rebuts Sotheby’s motion in a Sept. 11th letter to the judge, arguing, among other things, that “Sotheby’s provided false and misleading information to the Government.” To support its claim, the government cites a March 22, 2011 email between ICE’s Easter and Jane Levine, a former assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York specialized in cultural property crimes who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. Easter asked Levine whether Sotheby’s had “solid provenance information” for the statue. Levine said they did, noting Sotheby’s had “identified two individuals who presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s.”

SothebyRather than take Levine at her word, Easter pursued the original documentation for the statue, which had been passed from the London auction house Spink and Sons to Christies. Remarkably, the Spink records indicate the statue was stolen from the Cambodian temple of Prasat Chen in 1972, according to the government letter. This is the first hint of documentary evidence to support the government’s claim of the statue’s theft. What else might be contained in the archives of Spink, which was dealer Douglas Latchford‘s  primary pass through for allegedly looted Khmer antiquities? Could this archive also be the source of the “dispositive evidence” of looting cited by the Met in its recent return of two looted Khmer attendants to Cambodia?

Read the government’s letter:

As it turns out, the two individuals Levine cited were Latchford, who the government alleges “conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen,” and his colleague Emma Bunker, who later told Sotheby’s the statue was “definitely stolen.” Not exactly disinterested parties, and the government accuses Levine of deception: “The information provided by Levine was simply false.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct 14th.