Tag Archives: Singapore

The Kushan Buddhas: Nancy Wiener, Douglas Latchford and New Questions about Ancient Buddhas

NGA Seated Buddha

In 2005, Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum was offered a rare sculpture of a Seated Buddha carved from red sandstone in the second century. It was from India’s ancient city of Mathura, the second capital of the Kushan empire, and one of only a handful of such sculptures to have appeared on the market in recent years.

Nancy WienerThe dealer selling the sculpture was Nancy Wiener, whose eponymous Manhattan gallery has been a leading seller of Asian art for years. Her clients include the Metropolitan Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Asia Society and prominent private collectors. Wiener’s mother Doris was a renowned Asian art dealer who Christies’ called “one of the most distinguished tastemakers in this collecting category.”

The Royal Ontario was keen to buy the Seated Buddha – until curator Deepali Dewan called the expert who had authenticated the sculpture for Wiener. Donald Stadtner, an authority in Indian art, told Dewan that he believed the statue had been illegally exported from India and given a phony ownership history to cover its tracks.

urlAfter talking to Stadtner, the Royal Ontario Museum decided pass on the sculpture, Dewan confirmed in a recent email. Months later, Wiener offered it to the National Gallery of Australia for USD$1.2 million.

No Questions Asked at the National Gallery of Australia 

Wiener told NGA officials she had purchased the sculpture in 2000, museum records show. Previously, Wiener said, the sculpture had belonged to an Englishman named Ian Donaldson, who claimed to have purchased it while posted in Hong Kong between 1964 and 1966. She provided the museum with a 1985 Certificate of Ownership signed by Donaldson. It was the only record of sculpture’s ownership history, but the museum did not attempt to contact Donaldson.

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In July 2007, Wiener sent an invoice to the NGA for the discounted price of USD$1,080,000 and a signed guarantee offering to reimburse the museum if the provenance were ever proven false.

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Two months later, as preparations for the Buddha’s acquisition were under way, the National Gallery of Australia received a search certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects. Such declarations are largely useless for looted antiquities – as the certificate notes, “the database does not contain information on illegally exported artifacts unless they have been reported to us as stolen.”

Yet this was the extent of the museum’s due diligence. Museum officials never contacted Stadtner, whose authentication report for the Seated Buddha was among the paperwork provided by Wiener. The funds for the purchase were provided in part by Ros Packer, wife of the late media tycoon Kerry Packer and one of Australia’s most prominent philanthropists.

An Anonymous Tip

In 2012, I got an anonymous tip that the sculpture’s ownership history had been fabricated. The source identified the dealer as Nancy Wiener, and suggested the sculptures had been illegally exported from India. I shared the tip with Michaela Boland at The Australian, and in May 2013 we requested the sculpture’s ownership history from the NGA. The museum claimed the information was secret: “We do not provide details of this nature regarding acquisitions from the national art collection for clear commercial in confidence reasons,” museum spokesman David Edhill wrote.

Boland filed a Freedom of Information request for the records. In the fall of 2014, the Australian courts ruled in our favor and released copies of the NGA’s records – with the name of the dealer and former owner redacted. In November, we co-wrote a story in Australian about the case, linking the anonymous tip to the account in the museum records.

The Latchford Connection

In October 2014, as the records were released, the NGA began investigating the ownership history of the sculpture. It was only then that an NGA curator contacted Stadtner and asked him for any information he had about the sculpture’s origins.

In a Nov. 5th email to museum officials, Stadtner explained his long-held suspicions about the sculpture. The NGA’s was the second Kushan Buddha that Stadtner had examined for Wiener, he explained. The first he had studied in 1999 before it was sold to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum.

ACM seated buddha

Some time after, on a visit to Bangkok, Stadtner said he met with the Bangkok-based British collector Douglas Latchford. The main topic of conversation was Latchford’s role in the sale of fake Burmese bronzes, Stadtner said, one of which had been sold to the ACM in Singapore in 2000. While there, however, the two men discussed the ACM’s Seated Buddha.

“During the course of a long conversation (and boasting) Latchford said, en passant, that he found Nancy a provenance for the Buddha which by then was in Singapore,” Stadtner told  NGA officials in the email. “I recall that he said that he found ‘an old India hand’ in ‘Hong Kong’. By an old India hand I interpreted this to mean an older English gentlemen who had served in India but who was based then in Hong Kong.”

latchford.jpbStadtner was convinced the NGA’s Seated Buddha, sold several years later, had been offered with the same false story. “I strongly suspect that the ‘old India hand’ in H.K. will appear in the paperwork for both Buddhas, if my memory was correct and indeed he found this fellow in H.K. to provide the bogus certificates to Nancy for at least the Singapore Buddha.”

The NGA’s records, which Stadtner had not seen, appear to support his story: Wiener told the museum that the Buddha had belonged to a British ex-pat living in Hong Kong. Did Donaldson own the statues? What is his connection to Latchford? It is difficult to know: Andrew Ian Donaldson, listed at the same Hong Kong address supplied by Wiener, died in 2001, records show.

Latchford, whose alleged role in the Seated Buddha transactions has not been previously reported, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His London attorney, however, was in touch. “Our client does not know Mr Stadtner, nor has he ever met him,” wrote Amber Melville-Brown of Withers LLP. “He is completely at a loss as to why Mr Stadtner would make such false assertions.”

Stadtner told me he has very specific memories of his visit to Latchford’s Bangkok apartment. I asked to interview Latchford to clarify the confusion. “My client is, as I have already pointed out, a frail, elderly gentleman in poor health,” wrote Melville-Brown. “Accordingly, it would be quite inappropriate for him to be interviewed by you about this matter and he is unable to do so.”

In 2012, Latchford was identified in federal court records as a middleman in the trafficking of looted antiquities from Southeast Asia. Authorities allege Latchford knowingly purchased two looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network” and conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for them. The case was a civil lawsuit, and Latchford was not charged with a crime. But after a lengthy legal battle, Sotheby’s agreed to return its sculpture to Cambodia. Soon after, the Norton Simon Museum, Christie’s auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all returned sculptures tied to Latchford. UPDATE: The Cleveland Museum returned another looted Khmer sculpture linked to Latchford in May 2015.

Melville-Brown,Latchford’s attorney, has previously asked me to remove our past coverage of Latchford’s role in the Sotheby’s case. I have declined, noting that the account is based on federal court records protected under U.S. law.

Stonewalling in Singapore

The Asian Civilizations Museum has refused to release the ownership history for its Seated Buddha. When pressed repeatedly, a spokesperson for the museum said, “The Kushana Buddha was purchased from a respected international dealer in the year 2000, who had purchased it from a private collector who had owned the piece since the 1960s.” Is that private collector Ian Donaldson? The museum won’t say.

Last fall, I went by Nancy Wiener’s Manhattan gallery to see if she could clarify the history of the Seated Buddha sculptures. Her gallery manager refused me entry and claimed he did not know how to put me in touch with Wiener. She has not responded to emails.

In January, the Times of India reported that Australian authorities had concluded that the NGA’s Seated Buddha was stolen from an archaeological site and agreed to return it to India. National Gallery spokeswoman Alison Wright would neither confirm nor refute that account, but acknowledged that the museum “commenced legal discussions” with Wiener in November. “Those discussions have not yet concluded and therefore we are not able to comment further,” she said.

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UPDATED > Singapore Sling: The Asian Civilizations Museum Paid Kapoor More Than $1 million

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UPDATE 6/15/15: The Asian Civilizations Museum has agreed to return its looted sculture of Uma, according to Indian press reports. Twenty eight additional Kapoor objects at the museum remain under review.

UPDATE 3/20/15: The Asian Civilizations Museum has filed a lawsuit against Subhash Kapoor in New York City seeking repayment of $1.4 million it paid him for antiquities with falsified ownership histories. As noted earlier when Australia’s NGA took a similar step, such lawsuits are unlikely to prevail given Kapoor’s on-going criminal trial in India.

UPDATE: In response to this report, the Asian Civilizations Museum confirmed our accounting and released information on a few objects we missed, including six additional paintings purchased for $100,000 and a 10th century stone Nandi purchased for $55,000. That brings the total paid to dealer Subhash Kapoor to more than $1.3 million. The museum has yet to release any information on the provenance for the ancient objects.

nandiSingapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum bought more than $1 million of art from disgraced Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, according to business records from Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery.

Invoices that Kapoor sent to the ACM between 1997 and 2010 detail more than two dozen objects he sold, including nine antiquities of unclear provenance. (Kapoor also sold Indian manuscripts and paintings that to date have not be the subject of law enforcement investigations. Our complete Kapoor coverage here.) Most of the invoices were directed to the ACM’s former senior curator for South Asia, Dr. Gauri Krishnan. Krishnan is now director of the Indian Heritage Centre at Singapore’s National Heritage Board. The ACM did not respond to a request for comment.

M5354newhfLast December we reported that the ACM’s sculpture of Uma Parameshvari was stolen from the Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur District in 2005 or 2006, according to the court records filed with the guilty plea of Kapoor’s gallery manager Aaron Freedman.

In January, the ACM acknowledged it had purchased a total of 30 objects from Kapoor, who currently stands trial in India for trafficking 18 idols stolen at his request from local temples. The ACM did not name the objects, detail their provenance or disclose the price the museum had paid for them.

Now we can.

Amaravathi_stupaIn October 1997, Kapoor billed the ACM $22,500 for a 3rd Century limestone fragment from Amaravati, South India. “Examples from the Amaravait stuppa are extremely rare to find,” Kapoor wrote in text accompanying the sale. “This particular piece does not come from the stuppa proper, but from the outer rail copings that surrounded the stuppa. It is an exceptional example in both its size and in its illustrative qualities…The iconography of this fragment makes this a most interesting piece from the Amaravati area.”

standing_buddha_nagaiLater that same month, Kapoor sold the ACM a copper 11th Century Standing Buddha from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu for $15,000. Nagapattinam was an important center for Buddhism in South India,” he noted in the text. “Material from this area is extremely rare to find, and especially in such fine condition. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has an example which is slightly larger, but remains in a much inferior condition (vol.2 fig.140b). This example, though, is extremely crisp and well articulated.”lion_kanuj

Chamudi

In February 1998, Kapoor sold the ACM an 11th Century sandstone Crouching Lion (above) from Kanoj, Uttar Padesh for $35,000 and an 11th century stone Goddess Camunda (right) from Rajshahi, Bangladesh priced at $25,000. After a $5,000 discount, the total invoice was for $55,000. The goddess had previously been published in Leaves of the Bodhi Tree (#24).

That same month, Kapoor billed the ACM $9,500 for Hindoo Costumes, an album of 14 paintings from South India. Kapoor said the previous owner of the album was Sofia Anna Woolfe. In March 1999, Kapoor sold the ACM two 19th century watercolors from Tanjore for $6,000.

rattle

rattle3rattle1

An Art of the Past invoice dated April 2002 shows the ACM bought three ancient rattles from Kapoor for $10,000. The rattles (above) depict a seated man with bare belly, a boy seated with ball, and a seated man.

In July 2006, Kapoor provided ACM with a letter of provenance for a late 18th century altar from Goa with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The letter claims the altar had belonged to the parents of Selina Mohamed, Kapoor’s girlfriend. Mohamed claimed her parents acquired the altar in the 1960s and gifted it to her in 1992. (For reasons that are not clear, Kapoor did not send an invoice for the altar until February 2009, when he billed the ACM $135,000.)

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Mohamed was indicted by US authorities in December 2013 on four counts of possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy. Court records allege she fabricated false ownership histories for dozens of objects sold by Kapoor.

In February 2007, Kapoor sold the ACM the 11th century bronze Chola sculpture of Uma Parameshvari mentioned above. The price, after a $100,000 “discount,” was $650,000. The Uma had appeared in Art of the Past’s 2006 catalog. The ACM’s former curator Gauri Parimoo Krishnan has described the sculpture as one of the museum’s most prized artifacts, and it is featured prominently in museum promotional materials.

In a separate invoice that month, Kapoor specified the price ACM paid for ten additional objects:

1

Jina Rishabhanatha, M5378 South India, late 18th – early 19th century

25,000.00

2

Guru Garanth Sahib, M5831 Manuscript Punjab, Lahore, 19th century

15,000.00

3

Folio from a Mahabharata Series, P2458 South India, Seringpatnam, circa 1670Gouache and gold on paper

25,000.00

4

Adulation of Shri Nath-ji P2727 Rajasthan, Nathdawara, circa 1870

12,000.00

5

The Siege of Lanka P3009 Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

75,000.00

6

Rama and His Army Crossing to Lanka P3014 Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

75,000.00

7

Guru Nanak Dev with Bala and Mardana P0811 Deccan, circa 1700-1720 Gouache and gold on paper

9,000.00

8

Ram,Lakshman, Sita in River P3010
Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

50,000.00

9

Ram Lskshman Leaving P3012
Kangra, ca. 1820 Gouache and gold on paper

60,000.00

10

Mica Muharram Procession P1847 Delhi or Jaipur 19th century

3,500.00

Total

349,500.00

Discountover 31%

109,500.00

Final Total

240,000.00

Also in February 2007, Kapoor provided the ACM with a guarantee for the authenticity and provenance “of all artwork sold.” “If in the future the verity of either their provenance or authenticity is legally questioned and found to be incorrect, I nearby promise to reimburse the Asian Civilization Museum for the cost paid…” In April 2007, Kapoor billed the ACM $12,381 for the customs duties for the shipment of nine paintings an one manuscript, most likely the ones listed above.

In Dec, 2009, Kapoor billed the ACM 37,500 for three $30,000 for two watercolors on gold paper. (Change reflects statement by ACM.)

The total value of the ACM’s acquisitions from Kapoor: $1,328,250. 

Given the ACM’s extensive dealings with Kapoor, the Singapore museum should immediately release the provenance documents for all the antiquities it acquired from the dealer and proactively reach out to Indian and American investigators.

Our gratitude to Vijay Kumar for supplying several images of the Kapoor objects on display in the ACM. Readers can follow developments in the Kapoor case at Kumar’s website Poetry in Stone.   

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: