Tag Archives: Raj Mehgoub

Reckless: In Pursuit of Shiva, the National Gallery of Australia Ignored the Advice of Its Attorney

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The National Gallery of Australia ignored the advice of its own attorney when buying the $5 million bronze sculpture of Shiva, according to a damning confidential document uncovered by the Australian documentary program Four Corners, which aired an hour-long investigation of the case on Monday.

The Shiva was taken off display Wednesday, some ten months after we first published evidence that it had been stolen from an Indian temple in 2006. Australian authorities are now preparing to return it and another Shiva sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to India, where Subhash Kapoor, the dealer who supplied them, is facing criminal trial. (Our complete coverage of the Kapoor case is here.)

imgresWeeks before acquiring the Shiva in 2008, the NGA consulted with Australian solicitor Shane Simpson, an expert on art law. Simpson prepared a 12-page legal memo that cautioned NGA officials about the considerable risks of acquiring the sculpture.

The Shiva’s documentation was “at best, thin,” Simpson said in the brief, and there was an “inherent risk in the purchase.” He called the available information “minimal” and described the NGA’s due diligence investigation as “inadequate.”

“There is no evidence that provides any clue as to the origin of the object,” Simpson noted. Among the four likely possibilities he listed: “stolen from the original source (e.g. a temple)” and “unlawfully excavated.” Likewise, the museum had no information as to when the object was exported from India. “The absence of official documentation suggests that the object was exported without compliance” with India’s national patrimony laws of 1959 and 1972.

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“There must be a much deeper enquiry made before title can be confirmed,” Simpson urged. Among the specific steps that Simpson said the museum should take:

  • Contact the India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which monitors the illicit trade, and Indian diplomatic officials to see if they objected to the purchase.
  • Ask Raj Mehgoub, the alleged former owner, to provide documentation on the Shiva’s legal export from India.
  • Ask Kapoor for documents about his purchase of the Shiva from Mehgoub.
  • Confer with leading Indian experts on Chola art

The NGA appears to have taken none of these steps, and acquired the Shiva weeks later.

Presciently, Simpson warned the NGA that the guarantee provided by Kapoor was of limited value because “…that promise is still only as good as the continued existence of the firm and its liquidity at the time such a claim is made.” As we first reported in February, the NGA has filed a lawsuit against Kapoor seeking to recover its $5 million that will likely be undermined by this very fact. It is likely futile for the very reasons Simpson stated.

Simpson’s brief failed to raise what was perhaps the most obvious concern: that the provenance documents supplied by Kapoor had been forged. Indeed, Simpson stated he had “a high degree of certainty” that there could be no successful claim based on the 1970 UNESCO treaty or India’s 1972 law because the Shiva had likely left India before they were enacted. This was a glaring overstatement that likely gave the NGA a false sense of security. In fact, the Shiva left India illicitly in 2006 and both those treaties have been cited in India’s demand the sculpture be returned, according to a March 26 press release from Australia’s attorney general.

NGA’s Due Diligence Memo 

imgres-1Monday’s Four Corners program was largely based on information uncovered over the past year in a joint investigation carried out by myself; Indian art aficionado Vijay Kumar of Singapore; arts reporter Michaela Boland of The Australian; journalist R. Srivathsan of The Hindu. The earliest work on the Kapoor case was done by antiquities trade researcher Damien Huffer, who provided me with essential help early on. I was interviewed for the program, but the work of my other colleagues was not credited, as it should have been.

That said, the Four Corners team did uncover new information, including a detailed accounting of the NGA’s due diligence that the museum provided confidentially to George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Minister for the Arts.

The due diligence memo reveals the provenance for all 22 works of art that the NGA acquired from Kapoor between 2002 and 2011 for $11 million, and 11 additional Kapoor objects now on loan to the museum.

Among the revelations:

Rah MehgoubFive of the 22 objects were said to have come from Raj Mehgoub, whose humble lifestyle we’ve described previously. The NGA was apparently untroubled by the fact that the supposed owner of a $30 million art collection lived in a Philadelphia duplex worth just $83,000.

Selina MohamedThree of the objects cited the previous owner as Salina Mohamed, Kapoor’s longtime girlfriend. In December, Mohamed was charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy. Prosecutors say she was involved in the fabrication of fake ownership histories for Kapoor’s stolen objects.

Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager donated eleven paintings and a lithograph to American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, an U.S. non-profit that acts as a pass-thru for donations to the museum. Sager was named, but not charged, in a criminal case filed in New York against Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen.

PusunamyOne object reportedly came from another of Kapoor’s ex-girlfriends, Paramaspry Punusamy, the owner of Dalhousie Enterprises and Jazmin Asian Arts in Singapore. Punsamy is reported to have triggered the Kapoor investigation after falling out with him over a lawsuit in 2009.

stephen.markelKapoor claimed to have consulted with several leading Asian art experts, including Stephen Markel (left), curator of Asian art of LACMA, which acquired 62 objects from Kapoor and has had other alleged entanglements with the illicit trade; Robert Knox, the former keeper of Asian art at the British Museum; Vidya Dehejia, a professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University.

On the Shiva acquisition, the NGA has long claimed it consulted with a leading Indian expert who had given his blessing for the acquisition. The museum has refused to name the expert, but Four Corners identified him as Dr. Ramachandran Nagaswamy, a leading authority on Chola bronzes.

One problem: Dr. Nagaswamy says he has “absolutely no recollection” of ever speaking with anyone at the NGA.

Here is the full NGA report, including Simpson’s brief, as published by Four Corners:

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UPDATED > Radford Speaks, RETIRES: Director of Australia’s National Gallery Is In Denial

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UPDATE 3/21: Ron Radford announced he will retire from the National Gallery of Australia when his current term expires at the end of September. “Mr Radford has overseen a massive expansion of the gallery to include new wings of Indigenous art, reports ABC. “But his time in the top job has also been marred by scandal, with the gallery purchasing a statue from an art dealer that is now alleged to have been looted from a temple in India.” More coverage of the move here and here.

Ron Radford, the embattled director of the National Gallery of Australia, sat down last week for his first media TV interview since the Subhash Kapoor scandal broke. He likely wishes now he hadn’t.

Radford’s stumbling performance and reality-defying denials already have some leading experts questioning his ability to lead Australia’s premiere national museum. “The gallery’s council must surely question whether the director can remain in place,”  University of Sydney law professor Duncan Chappell told the Australian.

What did Radford say? First, he said he was still not convinced the museum’s $5 million Shiva was stolen. “I think it is by no means clear yet,” he said. “I think we just have to wait for the outcome of the courts in that regard.”

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His skepticism flies in the face of his museum’s own lawsuit against Kapoor claiming it was duped; Radford’s December offer to seek avenues for the Shiva’s restitution to India; the Australian Attorney General’s stated urgency to resolve the case; the guilty plea of Kapoor’s gallery manager Aaron Freeman, who admitted forging the Shiva’s false provenance and detailed its path from an Indian temple to New York; the indictment of Kapoor’s girlfriend and sister for allegedly forging provenance documents and holding stolen art; a detailed criminal investigation by Indian authorities that since 2009 has publicly named the alleged thieves who stole the Shiva; Vijay Kumar’s careful analysis of the links between the stolen Shiva and the one at the NGA; and our first report last June showing the Shiva in the house of the alleged temple thief who stole it.

Radford also staunchly defended the museum’s investigation of the bogus ownership history that Kapoor supplied for the Shiva, which claimed it had been in the private New York collection of a woman named Raj Mehgoub. “We did everything that was humanly possible,” Radford told ABC’s Anne Maria Nicholson. “The negotiations went on for a year as we were testing whether it had been stolen from anywhere or its provenance and we were checking all of that with great thoroughness. We went through about eight different processes before we bought it.”

If anything, the Kapoor scandal has highlighted his museum’s “rigour,” Radford said. In fact, the case highlights the NGA’s stunning lack of curiosity about the Shiva’s former owner, whom they never contacted. We’ve previously detailed the flaws of each of those steps. And as we show below, even the most basic research into Raj Magoub would have raised immediate red flags. “It was a cosmetic search at best,” Chappel told the ABC, “and one that certainly we now know was somewhat naive as well.”

Finally, Radford suggested that a definitive match could not be made with the poor quality photos posted online by India authorities. To our knowledge, the NGA has not bothered to obtain high-quality photos taken of the Shiva by the IFP Pondicherry in Nov. 1994. If they had, they’d see the match is indisputable.

Here is the NGA’s Shiva on display today:

NGA shiva

Here is an IFP image of the Shiva in the Sivan Temple in 1994, released to The Hindu:  IFP Shiva

As the Hindu reported Sunday, using those photos Indian authorities have identified seven distinct features that demonstrate the match:

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Radford’s still not convinced.

Why not? He makes vague mention of “a lot of stories floating round.” He has a point – curiously, there are not one but two false stories of the statue’s ownership history.

A Tale of Two Fake Provenances

In our first post on the Shiva last June, we said that Kapoor created a false provenance claiming he had purchased the Shiva in Oct. 2004 from a collector in Washington DC. Here is a copy of that false provenance:

Shiva DC provenanceThe NGA’s lawsuit against Kapoor revealed that the dealer provided the museum with a different false provenance: one listing Raj Mehgoub and her husband Abdulla as the former owners: 

shiva prov mehboug

Other records — including photos showing the Shiva in India in 2006 and shipping documents detailing the sculpture’s departure from India on Nov. 25, 2006, its arrival in New York and subsequent passage to Australia in 2007 — make clear that both of these stories are fictitious. But why did Kapoor create two versions?

Sources suggest the signature of the Washington D.C. collector, who had previously sold a painting to Kapoor, was initially used to forge a provenance that covered the illicit origins of the Shiva. Later that cover story was discarded as unlikely to hold up to scrutiny, and Kapoor and his staff created a second provenance document for the Shiva attributing it to the Magoub Collection.

As it happens, the NGA’s Shiva was not the only pricey antiquity which Kapoor claimed to have purchased from the private collection of Raj Mehgoub. Her name is listed as the prior owner of at least seven additional objects sold by Kapoor. The total value of those objects exceeds $30 million.

The NGA acquired at least three objects from the “Mehgoub Collection” prior to the Shiva, records show. In Nov. 2003 the museum paid $125,000 for a seated Gina that was said to come from Mehgoub. In 2006, the NGA paid $247,000 for a Gadharan Bodhisattva from Mehgoub. And in 2008, the museum paid $175,000 for a Monumental Alam from Mehboug.

Who is Raj Mehgoub?

Raj MehgoubSo, who is this wealthy collector Raj Mehgoub who kept millions of dollars worth of antiquities in her home? For starters, she is a real person. In public records, her name is spelled Raj Mahgoub. She has lived in blue-collar neighborhoods of Queens, New York for decades, with a brief stint outside Philadelphia. Perhaps coincidentally, her Facebook profile shows she has many friends or family members with the last name Kapoor.

Radford said the NGA’s “everything that was humanly possible” investigation included confirming her address using Google Earth. The NGA would have found Mahgoub lived in this small brick duplex on Millbank Rd. in Upper Darby, PA, a working class suburb outside of Philadelphia:

Magoub Philly

Public records show the house was valued at $83,000 when it sold in 2005 – two years after Mahgoub supposedly signed the letter of provenance for the Shiva. Why would the owner of $30 million of ancient art live in a duplex worth $83,000?

After selling the Philadelphia house, Mahgoub moved back to Queens, New York, where she had lived since the late 1980s, records show. Given that she had begun selling off her valuable antiquities collection, one might have expected an upgrade. But her Queens residence today is an apartment in this nondescript brick high-rise.

9910 60th Ave Queens

Radford acknowledged that neither he nor his staff tried to contact Mahgoub. His explanation is one of the most damning moments in his ABC interview: “And – but we need to be a bit – very careful too when you’re dealing with a dealer that you don’t go to through third party and undermine their…shall we say, confidentiality with the client that their selling the work.”

urlIndeed, the meager due diligence the NGA did on Mahgoub appears to have begun only in 2008 while considering the fifth object from her collection – the $5 million Shiva. It was then that NGA’s asian art curator Robyn Maxwell asked Kapoor for more information about the private collector, records show. Kapoor replied with an elaborate effort to explain Mahgoub’s possession of million of dollars in ancient art despite her obvious lack of means.

In the letter to Maxwell, Kapoor claimed to have known the Mahgoubs for 20 years. Raj’s husband Abdulla had retired as a Sudanese diplomat and grown depressed, Kapoor wrote. His lack of a job forced the family to downgrade from the “big house” they owned in the 1980s, whose value Kapoor estimated at $500,000, to smaller and smaller residences. “One might wonder why they did not sell the artwork at that time instead of moving into a smaller house,” Kapoor wrote. “I believe that Mrs. Mehgoub knew in the back of her mind that if she let these be sold, her husband would spend that money too very quickly.”

After Abdullah died in Aug. 2004 while visting family in Sudan, his widow Raj Mehgoub was willing to sell the Shiva, Kapoor wrote. He concludes his letter, “I hope this explanation is satisfactory for your office.”

Apparently it was.