Tag Archives: National Gallery of Australia

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:

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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:

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UPDATED: Guilty Plea: Kapoor’s Gallery Manager Cops to Six Criminal Counts

UPDATE: The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday that it is seeking to return its stolen Shiva, purchased from Kapoor in 2008 for $5 million, and will pursue a lawsuit against Kapoor. See below for details. 

The manager of Subhash Kapoor’s New York antiquities gallery pleaded guilty Wednesday to six criminal charges related to trafficking in stolen art.

ed106For nearly two decades, Aaron Freedman, 41, managed Art of the Past on Madison Avenue, a major supplier of ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world.

During that time, court records say, Freedman helped Kapoor manage a global network of looters, thieves and smugglers who pried artifacts from temples and ruins, laundered them with forged ownership histories and sold them to some of the world’s most prominent museums and collectors.

“He arranged for the shipping into and out of the United States of antiquities stolen from numbers countries including, but not limited to, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia, having the antiquities shipped through intermediaries in order to create documentation to help launder the pieces,” the court records say. “He also arranged for the manufacturing of false provenances for illicit cultural property, the contacting of prospective buyers, and the ultimate sale and transport of those looted and thereafter laundered antiquities.”

In a court appearance Wednesday, Freedman pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy and five counts of possession of stolen property, according to a spokesman for  the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. His attorney Paul Bergman did not return calls for comment. According to an online profile, Freedman graduated from Vassar College before studying Art History at Rutgers University. He started work at Art of the Past in 1995.

UPDATE: Bergman told The New York Times his client was eager to “take concrete steps to rectify his serious mistakes.” The prosecutor on the case was quoted by the Times saying, “Mr. Freedman, I believe, is sincerely and genuinely remorseful and repentant and he has taken significant steps toward making amends.” It appears likely Freedman will be cooperating with investigators.

subhash kapoorFreedman’s boss Subhash Kapoor is now in custody in Chennai, India where he is facing trial as the alleged mastermind of an international antiquities smuggling ring. Federal investigators have described Kapoor as one of the most prolific antiquities smugglers in the world. In a series of raids on his New York gallery and storage facilities, agents have seized an estimated $100 million in art. They are now in the process of tracking down objects he sold to museums and collectors around the world. [Find all our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.]

Since 1974, Kapoor has sold or donated thousands of pieces of ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and Australia’s National Gallery and Art Gallery of New South Whales.

The court records filed Wednesday detail several stolen objects that Freedman and Kapoor attempted to sell to museums and collectors.

The Bharhut Stupa

M5648 copyThe most important has not previously been revealed: a nearly 7-foot tall 2nd Century BCE sandstone sculpture from Bharhut stupa, in central India. Kapoor priced it at a staggering $15 million, calling it “the most significant example of Indian sculpture known to exist outside of India.”

In his gallery’s promotional materials for the sculpture, Kapoor stressed the object’s importance and rarity: “The Bharhut Stupa is one the most important monuments for the history of stone sculpture in India, as it was one of the first Buddhist monuments to have used stone extensively in its construction. In addition, the Bharhut Stupa was one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in its time.”

“The material remains from Bharhut Stupa are extremely limited, and, therefore, incredibly rare. Aside from a handful of museums in India (the Allahabad Museum, the Indian Museum in Calcutta, and the National Museum in New Delhi) there is no collection in the west, except for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, that has anything worth mentioning from this all-important site. The Norton Simon Museum has two well-known railing pillars from the Bharhut region that were acquired in the late 1960s….”

In a letter to a potential buyer, Freedman said the sculpture had “become available from an old private collection.” Investigators say it was stolen from the private residence of an Indian man who reported the theft in 2004.

Uma Parameshvari in Singapore

M5354newhfThis 11th Century Chola sculpture of Uma Parameshvari, the Great Goddess, standing in her sensuous thrice-bent pose, was stolen from the Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur District in 2005 or 2006, according to the court records.

Kapoor sold it to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum in February 2007 for $650,000, records show. His contact there was the museum’s senior curator Dr. Gauri Krishnan.

Also cited in support of Freedman’s criminal charges are four missing Chola sculptures worth $14.5 million that authorities allege were hidden by Kapoor’s sister, Sushma Sareen. As we reported in October, Sareen was criminally charged for her role in the case.

The final piece mentioned in the court records is the National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture of Shiva, purchased for $5 million in 2008. As we revealed in June, the sculpture was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu.

UPDATE 12/5: The National Gallery of Australia released the following statement after learning about Freedman’s plea agreement:

The NGA’s Chola-period Shiva Nataraja is among the items listed as being illegally exported from India. This information represents a significant and concrete development in the available information regarding the Kapoor case. The Gallery has instructed its American attorneys to commence legal proceedings against Subhash Kapoor in accordance with the provisions of our acquisition agreement. NGA Director Ron Radford has already contacted the Indian High Commission to discuss avenues for restitution…

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Freedman is due back in court on February 4th for sentencing. The Superior Court Information on his case, NY vs. Freedman (No. 2013NY091098) can be found here: 

Untold Millions: The National Gallery of Australia Won’t Say What They Paid Kapoor, So We Will – At least $8.5M

imagesThe National Gallery of Australia has refused to tell Australia’s Senate how much it paid (with public money, in some cases) for the 21 objects it acquired from New York antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now facing criminal trial in India for trafficking in stolen art.

The museum has also refused repeated requests from local and international media to release details on the objects it acquired from Kapoor, despite mounting evidence those objects are stolen property and were illegally exported from India.

The NGA’s stonewalling has inspired our digging. We can now reveal that the National Gallery of Australian paid Kapoor at least $8.5 million between 2002 and 2011.

Previously we’ve reported the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million for a Nataraja; $500,000 for a pair of Dvarapalas; $337,500 for a Nagaraja; and $195,000 for an Alam. Here are the prices paid for several other Kapoor objects that were first identified by Michaela Boland in the Australian last month:

The first object the NGA acquired from Kapoor was in September 2002, when the museum paid $35,000 for this Durga Slaying The Buffalo Demon, a 12th-13th century sculpture made in Gujarat, India. An employee of Kapoor assured NGA curator Robyn Maxwell that the piece would “arrive no later than next Friday in Sydney – in time for the gallery’s birthday weekend.”

durga

In Nov. 2003, the NGA purchased a Seated Gina under an arch from Kapoor for $125,000. The museum identifies the Jainist marble piece as coming from the Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India.

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On May 31, 2005 the NGA paid Kapoor $1.775 million for three important Indian antiquities. One was a bronze dancing child-saint Sambandar, purchased for $850,000. It was accompanied by a false letter of provenance dated 1969. This image shows the Sambandar in Kapoor’s catalog:

Sambandar

The image of the Sambandar below shows it in Kapoor’s gallery before restoration. Note the bronze appears to be dirty.

This image of the Sambandar shows it in Kapoor's gallery before restoration.

The second in the batch was a granite Goddess Pratyangira purchased for $275,000. As Kapoor noted in his catalog, “Representations of Pratyangira are exceedingly rare, with only one other example known, a 17th-century image that is still in worship.”

pratyangira

The final piece acquired in May 2005 shows worshipers dancing beneath the bodhi tree, and was acquired for $1.25 million. The NGA helpfully identifies it as coming from “the dome of a stupa at Amaravati, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India.”

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India wasn’t the only source for Kapoor’s antiquities network. In September 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA the head of a Bodhisattva for $247,500. It was likely looted from a Gandharan site in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

bodhisattva

In addition to antiquities, Kapoor also sold the museum several religious icons. This 18th century ivory Madonna and Child were sold to NGA in August 2011 for $35,000.

Madonna and Child

Kapoor sold this ivory crucifix from the Portuguese colony of Goa, India to the NGA in Oct. 2007 for $337,500. The museum says, “Holes piercing completely through the hands and feet mark stigmata and indicate the icon would have originally been affixed to a large cross.”

Christ crucified1

We encourage the National Gallery of Australia and other museums to be more forthcoming with information about objects in their collections. Museums are public institutions and owe the public an explanation of what they acquire, from whom they bought it and what they paid for it, particularly when questions are raised about an object’s provenance.

As we’ve learned from the Getty Museum, museums that try to hide the ball end up paying a higher price in the end.

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

imgresThe Art Gallery of New South Wales has released provenance information for one of the six objects it purchased from Subhash Kapoor, the New York antiquities dealer currently facing trial in India for trafficking in looted art. (Past coverage here.)

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

The release comes in the wake of our revelations about looted objects at the National Gallery of Australia, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor, including a $5 million sculpture of Shiva that was stolen from an Indian temple not long before it was offered to the museum with bogus ownership history. The NGA has refused multiple requests to release provenance information on any of the objects in its collection, despite compelling evidence several of those objects were looted.

We made similar requests to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has acknowledged acquiring six objects from Kapoor between 1994 and 2004. Last week, the museum posted information about the Kapoor objects on the provenance research section of its website, which had previously been dedicated to European paintings. After consulting with his board, museum director Michael Brand released on Tuesday the ownership history provided by Kapoor for one of those objects.

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Ardhanarishvara

In 2004, the Gallery purchased this Chola-period sculpture from Kapoor for more than $300,000. The 44-inch stone figure represents Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. It comes from Tamil Nadu, home to some 2500 important temples to Shiva. The image of Ardhanarishvara was likely in a niche on an external wall.

Kapoor provided two documents with the sculpture.

One is a receipt dated 1970, purportedly from Uttam Singh and Sons, the Delhi “copper and brass palace” that sold the sculpture to a private collector.

Ardhanarishvara receipt

The second document purports to be a 2003 “Letter of Provenance” on letterhead from Art of the Past, Kapoor’s Madison Ave. gallery. It is signed by “Raj Mehgoub,” who claims to be the wife of a diplomat who lived in Delhi from 1968 to 1971.

Aradhanareshwara prov

It is unclear whether the documents are genuine. Uttam Singh and Sons appears to be a real business in Delhi, but we could not reach the owners and did not find record of a Raj or Abdulla Mehgoub.

The documents bear a striking resemblance to other ownership records provided by Kapoor that appear to have been falsified. See, for example, this receipt from a Calcutta gallery for a pair of statues that photos show were in India recently:

Dwarapalas receipt

The Art Gallery of New South Wales acknowledges it did not obtain provenance information for the other five objects acquired from Kapoor, whose total value was about $100,000. The museum says it has not yet been contacted by Indian or American authorities investigating Kapoor.

Michael Brand

Despite lapses in the past, the Gallery should be congratulated for its transparent approach in the current case. Clearly Michael Brand learned from his experience at the Getty Museum, where — as we recount in Chasing Aphrodite — his predecessors’ stonewalling of Italian investigators prolonged the Getty’s troubles for years.

Other museums should follow the Gallery’s lead and use their provenance websites to publish all relevant information about antiquities obtained from Kapoor.

UPDATED: Documents Suggest More Stolen Idols At National Gallery Of Australia

UPDATE 4/10/14: Indian authorities have asked regional police and the public to help identify the origin of the two Dvarapalas that Kapoor sold to the NGA.

Last week we revealed documents suggesting the $5 million bronze Dancing Shiva purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2005  had been stolen from an Indian temple not long before.

Shiva Nataraja2The story made immediate waves. You can find media coverage of our scoop here and here. Jason has a story in the June 11th Los Angeles Times on the case. We’ve also shared info with Michaela Boland, the national arts writer at The Australian, who has published additional material there.

As promised, here’s information on four more objects the museum acquired from Subhash Kapoor, whose Manhattan gallery Art of the Past has been selling ancient art to museums around the world since 1974.

Two Dvarapalas, or Door Guardians

In 2005, the National Gallery of Australia purchased a pair of 15th century stone Dvarapalas from Kapoor for nearly $500,000.

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dvarapala2

Kapoor provided ownership records for the pair stating they were purchased by a New York collector in 1971 from a gallery in Calcutta .

Dwarapalas prov

Kapoor included what he claimed to be an original receipt from the gallery.

Dwarapalas receipt

Digital images sent to Kapoor, however, show the statues sitting on a dirt floor, propped up by a brick with a white cloth hanging behind them. Sources say the images were taken by Indian smugglers and sent to Kapoor via email in recent years.

Dwarapala1

Dwarapala2

Nagaraja, the Serpent King

In 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA an 8th century sandstone sculpture of Nagaraja, the Serpent King, for $337,500.

152673Nagaraja 2

An ownership document supplied by Kapoor states the Nagaraja had been in a Japanese private collection since 1969.

Nagaraja prov

But among Kapoor’s records are digital pictures of the sculpture suggesting it was still in India in 2005. They show what appears to be the same sculpture sitting on a dirt floor and plaid blanket (above right), and in a warehouse leaning up against burlap packing materials (below.)

Nagaraja 1

Monumental Alam

In 2008, the NGA acquired a 19th century monumental brass Alam, or Islamic processional standard, from Kapoor for $195,000.

alam

The dealer provided a document claiming a diplomat from New York had purchased it in Delhi in the late 1960s.

Alam provDigital images allegedly sent to Kapoor by smugglers, however, suggest it was in India in 2006.

Alam1

Alam2

The National Galley of Australia has not responded to multiple requests for comment. Perhaps none is needed?

UPDATE 6/13: Prompted by “media reports,” the National Gallery of Australia has released a statement acknowledging, “it is possible that the Gallery is a victim of fraud.”

The NGA details the due diligence process it took before acquiring the statue of Shiva include:

∙ the receipt of a certificate from the international Art Loss Register

∙ receiving and checking letters from the previous owner, including checking that the address of the former owner was legitimate

∙ consulting the Tamil Nadu Police website for stolen objects

∙ liaising with a Chola bronze expert in India, who was supportive of the acquisition

∙ checking the extensive records produced by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The steps were clearly not sufficient to prevent the museum from repeatedly acquiring recently looted antiquities from Kapoor. They raise several questions: Does  an Art Loss Register certificate for unprovenanced antiquities carry any meaning? If not, as many experts say, why is it continued to be offered evidence of due diligence by auction houses, dealers and museums? Why did the museum merely confirm the address of the previous owner, not contact him? When the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing website posted an image of the stolen Shiva in 2009, months after the NGA acquired the statue, did the museum contact authorities or do anything proactive to determine if their statue had indeed been stolen? And who was the Chola bronze expert in India who was consulted?

The statement concludes: “At this point the Gallery has been given no substantiated evidence to affect its belief that it owns a genuine item with proper documentation for its history of ownership and which was acquired within accepted museums standards.” Really?

The Australian case holds lessons for all museums that acquire ancient art. The “well regarded” dealers you do business with may someday end up like Kapoor. When that happens, how will your due dilligence efforts look in hindsight. In particular, good faith museums in possession of purported ownership histories from Kapoor should be actively investigating the true provenance of those objects — and making the results public.

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Kapoor Case: Investigation into Stolen Indian Idols Will Test Museum Transparency

Subhash Kapoor

The investigation of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, which made international headlines this week when federal agents raided his Manhattan warehouse, promises to shine a bright light on the illicit trade in antiquities smuggled out of India and other South Asian countries — and the dealer’s ties to prominent museums around the world.

New York authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor, the longtime owner of Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past, the same day that agents with Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement seized what they said were $20 million worth of stolen Indian artifacts from his Manhattan storage facilities. The seized objects include three Chola period statues that investigators say match objects in Interpol’s database of stolen works of art. Some objects were imported into the U.S. labelled “Marble Garden Table Sets.” An additional $10 million in antiquities were quietly seized from Kapoor in January of this year.

The seized objects are likely the tip of the iceberg of the dealer’s inventory. Since 1974, Kapoor has traded in ancient art from India, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world, as well as more recent art from India. A sample of his recent inventory can been seen in this 2011 catalog for Art of the Past.

Kapoor’s legal troubles extend far beyond New York. He was detained in Germany in October 2011 and this month extradited to Chennai, India, where he is facing criminal charges of being the mastermind of an idol smuggling ring that plundered ancient temples in Tamil Nadu. Kapoor has reportedly admitted to Indian police that he earned more than $11 million through the transport and sale of plundered Indian antiquities with his daughter and brother through a US corporation called Nimbus International.

Kapoor’s New York attorney Christopher Kane did not return a call to his cell phone on Sunday, but told the New York Post that Kapoor ““thinks of himself as a legitimate businessman, and I have no reason to think he’s not.” We’ll post any response we receive here.

As Kapoor’s legal case plays out in India, the spotlight now turns to the dozens of museums and collectors who did business with the dealer. Kapoor boasts in his bio that he has sold antiquities to a long list of leading museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco; The Art Institute, Chicago; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; Museum fűr Indische Kunst, Berlin; The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Investigators have tied a Dancing Shiva at Australia’s National Gallery to Kapoor, the New York Post reported.

In a press release, American investigators asked Kapoor’s clients to check their collections and be in touch. “Some of the artifacts seized during this investigation — which are stolen — have been displayed in major international museums worldwide,” ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations team said in a press release. “Other pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums. HSI will aggressively pursue the illicit pieces not yet recovered.”

The press, however, is not waiting for museums to come clean. The New York Times queried several museums last week about Kapoor objects in their collections. And on Saturday, The New York Post reported that a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance at the National Gallery of Australia has been tied to the investigation.

Not all museums that did business with Kapoor will be in trouble, of course. The Freer-Sackler Gallery, for example, told the New York Times that the only object they had acquired from Kapoor was a 20th century Indian necklace. The two objects in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s online catalog linked to Kapoor Galleries, operated by Kapoor’s brother Ramesh, are 17th century Indian paintings.

The Met’s response to the Kapoor investigation has been rather cavalier. Despite the admonition from the federal authorities, the museum will not review its Kapoor antiquities, Holzer told the Times, noting that the collection had long been posted on the Met’s website. One might think that recent history would have taught Met officials time and again that open possession of allegedly stolen property is no protection from claims both legal and moral.

The Met tried to deflect the questions from the press, telling the NY Times that most of the 81 pieces they had acquired from Kapoor were drawings from the 17th, 18th or 19th century highlighted in the 2009 Met exhibit, Living Line: Selected Indian Drawings From the Subhash Kapoor Gift. “They do not appear to be the type of items that they are worried about,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer.

But a search of the Met’s online catalog reveals several antiquities from Kapoor that authorities likely will be interested in — none have documented ownership histories dating to 1972, when India began controlling exports of ancient art.

1st Century BC ceramic Bengal pot (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

1st Century BC Bengal Vessel (2001 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

The God Revanta Returning from a Hunt (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Yakshi Holding a Crowned Child (2002 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Curiously, the Met also has five stone sculptures from Kapoor in its study collection, here and here, for example. They resemble ancient pieces but are labeled by the museum as “20th Century.” All were acquired in 1991. Did the museum acquire these objects from Kapoor, only to discover they were modern forgeries? We’ve asked Holzer for more information.

UPDATE: Harold Holzer tells us, “The group of 20th-century forgeries was accepted as a gift along with the other Kapoor gifts for our study collection, and always identified as such.”

To be fair to the Met, their online collection is far more transparent than that of several other American museums tied to Kapoor. The Toledo Museum of Art told the NY Times that it had received a gift of 44 terracotta antiquities from Kapoor in 2007. The only object that appears in a search of the museum’s online collection is a terracotta vessel purchased in 2008. The museum published the object in 2009 in a book of the museum’s masterworks, but offers no ownership history other than saying it was created in Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site north-east of Kolkata. Where was it before Toledo? What are the ownership histories for the other 43 objects acquired from Kapoor?

We’ve asked the Toledo Museum for that information, but apparently such requests are a low priority there. More than a month ago, we requested information about objects in their collection tied to two other dealers who investigators have connected to the illicit trade — Edoardo Almagia and Gianfranco Becchina. We have still not received a response.

Several years ago, the Getty Museum took a similar stance when faced with questions about objects in their collection. Stonewalling only convinced the public of the museum’s bad faith, and fueled the zeal of investigations by foreign governments and the media. Museums would be smart to heed those lessons from the Getty case, lest they relive the consequences.

Like the Almagia investigation, the Kapoor case will be a test for how transparent American museums can be in the face of unpleasant questions about ancient art in their collections. Will they take a proactive approach to investigating their collections, as they have done with objects with unclear provenance from World War II era? Or will they stonewall and encourage others to do the investigation for them?

Hat-Tips: Several people have been covering the Kapoor case for months, and you should read their detailed coverage. The Indian press, especially the Times of India, has been covering the case for months. Damien Huffer, whose excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under tracks the illicit antiquities trade in the Southern Hemisphere, was one of the first to pick up the story, a distinction that earned him repeated legal threats. Paul Barford’s blog has also diligently tracked reports on the case, adding his salty commentary along the way. Most recently, The New York Post broke the news of the Manhattan raids last week and has followed-up with some additional scoops.

UPDATE: Attorney Rick St. Hiliare has some very interesting thoughts on what the Kapoor case reveals about antiquities smuggling networks: “Examining the import and export methods surrounding the Kapoor case not only can aid police in the United States and India in their current investigations targeting the alleged idol thief, but it can help policymakers, criminologists, and scholars think about better ways to detect, uncover, interdict, and prosecute future crimes of heritage trafficking.” Hilaire also offers excellent analysis of the bills of lading allegedly used by Kapoor’s enterprises, revealing how these objects were able to enter the U.S. under false premises. He goes on to say the case might give a boost to our WikiLoot project, which is designed to suss out these very matters. Worth reading his entire post.