Tag Archives: Robyn Maxwell

Shiva Goes Home: Australia’s Prime Minister Returns Looted Kapoor Idols to India

 

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On Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott will return two looted idols seized from Australian museums during a meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Abbott will personally deliver the National Gallery of Australia‘s $5 million Dancing Shiva and the Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ $300,000 Ardhanarishvara to Modi as a “gesture of good will” at a state reception at the Indian presidential palace, the Australian’s Michaela Boland reported in Friday’s paper (front page seen above.)

As we first revealed here a year ago, both objects were stolen from temples in India and later sold to the museums by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor, who, his gallery manager has admitted, created falsified ownership documents to hide their illicit origins.

The Australian returns mark the first major repatriations in the Kapoor case, but are unlikely to be the last. Dozens more Kapoor objects acquired by the Australian museums were sold with false ownership histories similar to those used with the returned objects. Several will likely play a prominent role in Kapoor’s criminal trial in Chennai, India, which has been on hold pending the return of the NGA’s looted Shiva. (below)

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Meanwhile, Kapoor’s international network of looters and smugglers is still being mapped by authorities in the United States, who have already seized over $100 million in art from the dealer’s Manhattan gallery and storage facilities. Federal investigators in the United States are methodically working through mountains of evidence seized from Kapoor, probing his ties to a number of American and foreign museums that did business with the dealer. Indian authorities, meanwhile, are considering a broader campaign to reclaim stolen antiquities from foreign institutions.

220-2004s-339x605_q85Over the past two years, we’ve traced hundreds of suspect Kapoor objects to museums around the world. To date, the Kapoor case has received the most attention in Australia, whose National Gallery for months stonewalled press and government inquiries and dismissed mounting evidence before agreeing to take the stolen idol off display. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a slightly more proactive approach, releasing the ownership history that Kapoor supplied for its sculpture of  Ardhanarishvara (left.) Soon after, Indian art blogger Vijay Kumar identified the temple from which the sculpture was stolen.

The idols have been in the Australian government’s possession for months, but their fate remained unclear until today. The According to The Australian, Abbott decided during a July dinner with George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Arts Minister, to present the idols to Modi during his two-day state visit to India. “Brandis told him the issue was a potential problem in the relationship between the nation­s and Mr Abbott said returning the statues would be an important statement of goodwill towards the Indian Prime Minister, elected to office in May,” the newspaper reported.

Underscoring the diplomatic importance of the returns, Abbott reportedly wanted to have his presidential plane transport the objects directly but they were too heavy and were dispatched on Wednesday by jumbo jet instead.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery officials who played a key role in acquiring the Shiva – despite the warnings of their own attorney – are quietly exiting the scene. Curator Robyn Maxwell, who handled the negotiations with Kapoor, retired quietly last month, the Australian reported. Director Ronald Radford will retire this month, his legacy tarnished by his mishandling of the case. The Art Gallery NSW’s Michael Brand, who has taken a more open approach to looting investigations in Australia and previously at the Getty, has been mentioned as a possible successor.

 

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.”

Shiva Natraja1

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:

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.