Tag Archives: Sushma Sareen

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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A Family Affair: Kapoor’s Sister Charged With Hiding Looted Idols

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has charged the sister of Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor with attempting to hide from federal authorities four stolen bronze sculptures worth $14.5 million.

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Kapoor after his arrest and extradition to India

Sushma Sareen was charged on October 7 with four counts of felony possession of stolen property. According the criminal complaint, Sareen took over Kapoor’s business after his arrest in Germany in 2012 and began running it with Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager. Ever since, Sareen has been closely involved with the business, traveling to India, assisting with wire transfers and contacting smugglers, the complaint alleges.

Sareen was released on $10,000 bond. Her lawyer Scott E. Leemon told the New York Times that Sareen denied the charges. See our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.

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Bronze Shiva Natarajah stolen from an Indian temple in 2008

The Chola-era bronzes she attempted to hide are among 14 that were stolen in February 2008 from the Varadharajah Perumi temple in Suthamally Village of Tamil Nadu, India, the complaint alleges. The idols were allegedly stolen for Kapoor by a crew hired by his accomplice Sanjeevi Ashokan. According to Indian investigators, Ashokan “used to select Chola period temples, which were in ruins, for committing theft of antique idols, as theft in such temples would not be known soon after the crime. For identifying temples to commit the crime, he used to refer to books such as South Indian Bronzes, Master pieces of Indian Sculptures and Survey Maps.” In all, 18 idols were stolen from a dilapidated temple during two days in February 2008. They were transported in a truck to Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital, where many were provided to Ashokan, who paid Rs. 25 lakhs, or about $50,000.

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Shiva Nataraja shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past 2010 catalog

Ashokan allegedly exported the idols in a shipment mixed with modern handicrafts through the Chennai Port on March 6, 2008 to Union Link Int. Movers (HK) Inc in Hong Kong. Kapoor paid Ashokan more than 1 million rupees, or roughly US$230,000, through HSBC bank for the idols, Indian investigators allege. Shipping documents seized by U.S. federal agents appear to support that conclusion. The complaint says the shipping records show the 14 idols were illegally exported from India to Hong Kong along with otherwise legal shipments of “new Indian artistic handicrafts.”

The complaint also spells out the early stages of the Kapoor investigation and reveals that federal agents have recruited several insiders — including a member of Kapoor’s staff and a person who posed as a private collector — as informants in their investigation of Kapoor, who they have described as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

That investigation appears to have begun in 2007, when a person described as “Informant #1” was arrested in California and pled guilty to a customs violation. The defendant began cooperating with federal investigators, who asked Informant 1 to contact Subhash Kapoor and employees of his Madison Avenue  gallery Art of the Past.

Informant 1 began asking Kapoor and his staff for “fresh” antiquities, a euphemism for objects that had recently been looted or stolen. In a 2008 visit to Kapoor’s gallery, Informant 1 was offered a stolen 12th century sculpture of the dancing Hindu got Shiva Nataraja for $3.5 million.

In September 2011, Informant 1 recorded a meeting with Kapoor in which he was offered the $3.5 million Shiva and another Shiva valued at $5 million, both of which were on display in the gallery. Kapoor said he had been holding the objects for a few years and expected them to appreciate by 10 to 15% a year. Both had been displayed in Kapoor’s catalogs and other catalogs, including the Asia Week New York 2009.

Emails obtained by federal agents show Kapoor also was shopping two other Chola bronzes: a Uma Parameshvari valued at $2.5 million and a $3.5 million Uma Parvati.

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Figure of Uma Parvati shown in its original setting in an Indian temple 

Uma Parvati shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past catalogue

In November 2011, Kapoor instructed an employee to send the four bronzes to the apartment of Selina Mohamad. After federal agents searched Kapoor’s gallery in Jan 2012, Mohamad asked that the statues to be moved. Sareen allegedly moved them to a “safe location.”

It is not clear where the bronze idols are today. Kapoor is currently being held in a Chennai jail awaiting trial.

Here is the criminal complaint against his sister:

UPDATE: Vijay Kumar’s site Poetry in Stone has posted a detailed analysis of these and other Kapoor objects. Check it out: http://poetryinstone.in/