Tag Archives: Homeland Security Investigations

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:

Advertisements

SCOOP: New Evidence Of Stolen Idols at the National Gallery of Australia

366257-shiva

This 900-year-old bronze statue of Dancing Shiva, shown on display at the National Gallery of Australia, was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, India shortly before the museum acquired it, new records show.

UPDATE 11/6: The NGA has released a statement saying there is no “conclusive evidence” the sculpture was stolen. See below.

UPDATE 6/12: Since publishing this post we’ve received documents that show the National Gallery of Art purchased the Dancing Shiva (above) for $5 million, not the $2 million originally stated below and in other media reports.

Last July, we wrote that the arrest of Indian antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor would test the museum world’s commitment to transparency.

subhash kapoor

Federal investigators in the United States have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from the Manhattan dealer, who they describe as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.” In previous posts, we have identified suspect Kapoor objects at museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor.

RadfordSo far, the NGA has failed the transparency test. As a member of the International Council of Museums, the museum is bound by a code of ethics that requires it to be open about its collection. But museum officials have refused to identify or release collecting histories for the 21 objects. Instead, the NGA created an investigative committee that includes the two museum officials most responsible for the Kapoor acquisitions: museum director Ron Radford (left) and senior curator of Asian art Robyn Maxwell.

The museum has promised to cooperate with investigators, but in May, Indian officials complained that the NGA had refused to respond to a formal request for information. (The museum claims it never received the request.) Last week Radford was asked about the case during a hearing of Australia’s senate, but would not divulge additional information, saying only that he was confident none of the Kapoor objects had been looted.

Radford’s confidence is sorely misplaced. In the coming days, ChasingAphrodite.com will publish new information about several of the objects the NGA acquired from Kapoor. The records, obtained from sources with knowledge of the on-going investigations, show that several of the objects were illegally removed from Indian temples shortly before Kapoor offered them to Radford, Maxwell and other NGA officials. Many of the objects were accompanied by false provenance papers. Those ownership histories are belied by evidence seized from Kapoor, including photographs sent to him by smugglers soon after the idols had been removed from Indian temples.

The Lord of Dance

In 2008, the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million $2 million for a bronze Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva. The more than 4-foot (130 cm.) tall figure depicts the Hindu god as the Lord of Dance, prancing in a ring of flames as he steps on the head of a dwarf who represents ignorance. Shiva is ushering in the destruction of the weary universe so that the god Brahma may restart the process of creation. It is a common theme in Indian mythology, particularly in the Tamil temples of southern India.

Kapoor provided the museum with a document stating that he had purchased the bronze from a Washington D.C. man in October 2004. He also signed a warranty prepared by the museum that transferred title to the NGA and indemnified the museum in case of a breach.

Shiva Natraja1

The story of the Washington owner was a fabrication, the records show. This photo of the Nataraja (left) was sent to Kapoor by smugglers in October 2006. Sources say it was taken soon after the  idol was stolen from the Sivan Temple in the village of Sree Puranthan in Tamil Nadu, where it and several other large bronze idols were worshiped before the temple fell into ruin.

According to Indian investigators, a year earlier Kapoor had traveled to Tamil Nadu and met with Sanjivi Asokan, the alleged head of a ring of idol thieves in the region. Kapoor asked for Chola-era bronzes, which were in high demand on the art market. Over the next several months, Asokan allegedly hired thieves who — for 700,000 rupees, or about USD$12,000 — broke into the Sivan Temple and stole the eight idols shown below (Shiva at top left.)Sivan Temple idolsThe idols were allegedly mingled with replicas to convince a government official to certify them as modern handicrafts. They were exported by Ever Star International Services Inc. to New York, where they were received by Kapoor’s company Nimbus Imports Exports in the fall of 2006. For his trouble, Asokan was allegedly paid about USD$200,000.

In April 2007, Kapoor obtained a certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the Shiva had not been registered as stolen property. ALR had no basis to know the Shiva had been stolen — the theft was only discovered by villagers in 2008. But Kapoor was not required to provide any provenance information for the bronze, despite ALR’s public claim that “certificates are not issued on the basis of incomplete or inadequately researched information.”

shiva.kapoorKapoor included the Shiva in the catalog of his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past with the above photo and this description:

Shiva as the Nataraja, The Lord of the Dance, is the symbol par excellence of South Asian art. It is the full and perfect expression of divine totality—the manifestation of pure, primal rhythmic power. Shiva simultaneously dances the universe into existence by awakening inert matter with the rhythmic pulse of movement, sustains this existence, and sends all form into destruction….

This is the largest, most significant Chola Period sculpture of this subject to appear on the market in a generation.

There are many bronze sculptures of Nataraja, and they all share certain basic characteristics. But even to a lay eye, the similarities between the Shiva shown in the smuggler’s photos and the one on display at the NGA are apparent. For example, looking closely at the individual flames surrounding Shiva, most have tails to the left, center and middle of the flame. In both the smugglers and the NGA’s Shiva, however, the first and second flames on the top left and the third flame on the top right have tails to the right and left, but none in the middle.

Here is a photo of the Shiva from behind, also sent to Kapoor by the alleged smugglers in 2006. It gives more context for the room, which does not appear to be on Madison Avenue or in Washington D.C.

Shiva Nataraja2

Kapoor, Asokan and the alleged thieves have all been arrested and are currently being tried in India for the Sivan Temple thefts. Meanwhile, American officials with the Department of Homeland Security’s HSI team have issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in the U.S. and are pursuing their own investigation of museums that acquired objects from him.

We’ll soon post additional documents and photos of Kapoor objects at the NGA and other museums. Meanwhile, institutions that did business with Kapoor would be wise to 1) publicly disclose complete copies of the collecting history for those objects and 2) proactively contact U.S. and Indian investigators.

UPDATE: On Nov 6, 2013, the museum released the following statement from its attorney:

The National Gallery of Australia believes there is yet to emerge any conclusive evidence to demonstrate that the 11th-12th century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Shiva Nataraja] in its collection was stolen or illegally exported from India. The Gallery notes that criminal proceedings against Art of the Past dealer Subhash Kapoor are ongoing.

If, at the end of the legal process, the courts determine that this Shiva Nataraja was stolen and illegally exported, the Gallery will have been a victim of fraud. The Indian Government may request the Australian Government to return the work if it is found to have been stolen or illegally exported from India. The court has made no findings in relation to the sculpture.

In the meantime, the Gallery will continue to cooperate with the relevant authorities including the Indian High Commission.

 

 

 

 

The Peruvian Connection: Federal Agents Bust Alleged Antiquities Smugglers Network In Utah

Last week a federal grand jury indicted two Utah residents and two Peruvians in an alleged scheme to smuggle recently looted artifacts into the United States.

1106968The case started in the fall of 2012 when an undercover agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) bought 12 artifacts from 70-year old  Cesar Guarderas of West Valley City Utah for more than $20,000.

Guarderas told the agent that Javier Abanto-Sarmiento, his supplier in Trujillo, Peru, had access to more than 100 more pieces of pottery. Trujillo is a major city in northwest Peru near what was once the center of the ancient Chimu kingdom. The Chimu capital Chan Chan, just 5 km outside Trujillo, is the largest Pre-Colombian city in South America and the largest adobe city in the world. It has been a World Heritage Site since 1986.

Chan-Chan-Peru-631

The site has a long history of plunder, as noted by Smithsonian Magazine:

Chan Chan’s days of glory came to an end around 1470, when the Inca conquered the city, broke up the Chimú Empire and brought many of Chan Chan’s craftsmen to their own capital, Cuzco, 600 miles to the southeast. By the time Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived around 1532, the city had been largely abandoned, though reports from the expedition described walls and other architectural features adorned with precious metals. (One of the conqueror’s kinsmen, Pedro Pizarro, found a doorway covered in silver that might well have been worth more than $2 million today.) Chan Chan was pillaged as the Spaniards formed mining companies to extract every trace of gold and silver from the city.

l_ps1_482858_3qtr_dd_t09Today, Early Chimu (Moche) and Chimu pottery like this piece acquired in 2009 by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is popular among collectors of Pre-Colombian art.

Guarderas told the undercover agent that Abanto-Sarmiento “knows where to look for pottery buried in the ground” and “had a contact with the National Institute of Culture in Peru who provides him with authentic certifications stating that the pottery are replicas and  uses the certifications to illegally export genuine artwork from Peru.”

The agent subsequently acquired another 25 objects from the network, the indictment alleges. The objects were later authenticated by experts at Utah Valley University and Tulane University.

Also named in the indictment is Abanto-Sarmiento’s brother Alfredo, who remains at large in Peru, and their sister Rosa Isabel Guarderas of West Valley Utah.

Some issues to watch as the case moves forward: How long had the alleged network been in action? To whom did they sell the looted artifacts? Have any local museums done business with them?

In 1997, the United States and Peru signed a bi-lateral agreement under the 1970 UNESCO accord prohibiting the importation into the United States of specific cultural property originating from Peru, including artifacts and ethnological religious objects. But as Rick St. Hilaire has noted, the prosecutors are pursuing smuggling charges, not violations of the import restrictions. The potential maximum penalty for smuggling goods into the United States is up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Here is the criminal complaint: