By Julianne Schmidt.

In the fall of 2011, Subhash Kapoor, an antiquities dealer based in New York, made headlines in the art world for being arrested by Interpol in Frankfurt, Germany. Indian officials had contacted Interpol prior to Kapoor’s visit to Germany to set out a red alert notice for his arrest.[1] The Tamil Nadu Idol Wing, Criminal Investigation Department had evidence connecting Kapoor to stolen artifacts from southern India. Internationally renowned dealer, Kapoor, a citizen of both India and the US, was subsequently extradited from Cologne to India in July of 2012, where he remains in custody in the state of Tamil Nadu for his ongoing trial.

The cooperation between Indian officials and Interpol agents regarding Kapoor’s arrest also extended to the United States, where Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had been jointly keeping tabs on Kapoor’s dealings. Beginning in the early 2000s, US officials had been looking into shipments between India and New York believed to contain stolen artifacts.[2] Through arrests in India and testimony from individuals linked to the dealer, it became clear that Kapoor was heading an international web of criminal activity funneling objects across borders and landing them into the collections of unassuming buyers.[3]

The 2011 arrest exposed the geographic expanse of Kapoor’s trafficking of objects, which stretched throughout Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, among other states, and implicated the collecting practices of museums across the globe. Over a decade after the collapse of Kapoor’s illicit trade through local and international efforts, the complexity of his scheme and sheer number of stolen objects can still be seen through the restitutions continuing to take place in 2021.

Investigation Overview: From Arrests to Restitutions

The complaint filed in New York in 2019 by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office refocused attention on the illicit antiquities trade weaving its way to public and private collections in the United States.[4] The New York case serves as a culmination of the US-based investigation into Kapoor’s dealings, known as Operation Hidden Idol, which had been ongoing for years, spearheaded by the combined efforts of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations, New York. Kapoor was charged with 86 criminal counts of grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, and conspiracy to defraud. Along with seven other co-conspirators, he had succeeded in channeling over 2,600 trafficked objects valued at approximately $143 million through his New York gallery, Art of the Past (founded in 1974).[5] A vast scheme believed to have been initiated in 1986, the illicit network included the defendants Sanjeeve Asokan; Dean Dayal; Ranjeet Kanwar; Aditya Prakash; Vallabh Prakash; Richard Salmon; and Neil Perry Smith.[6] This group marks an international team of art restorers, antiquities dealers, and suppliers, as well as orchestrators of looting from temples and sites deemed low-security and vulnerable.

The complaint highlights the extent of Kapoor and his affiliates’ crimes. This includes falsified and forged documents and the systematic selection of antiquities to be looted and illegally smuggled out of the states where they resided. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office requested extradition of Kapoor in July of 2020. Since then, the DA’s Office has actively continued to repatriate objects, despite the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first half of 2021 has resulted in numerous restitutions:

Sri Lanka: 2 Sculptures

Two statues of Buddha taken in conjunction with the investigation into Kapoor were returned to Sri Lanka on March 25, 2021. The pair of works, dating from the 18th century, is valued at approximately at $66,000.[7]

At the New York restitution ceremony, H.E. Ambassador Mohan Pieris, representative from the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, thanked the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for their work to return stolen artifacts. Highlighting the international criminal network engaged in antiquities trafficking, Ambassador Pieris called for an increase in global cooperation, emphasizing that “more needs to be done.”[8] Importantly, he placed the looting of cultural artifacts from Sri Lanka in historical context, noting the legacy of colonialism and recent ethnic conflict as having fostered environments that have allowed theft and trafficking to thrive in past decades.

Nepal: 3 Antiquities

In April 2021, three more works were restituted from the Kapoor inventory, this time to the people of Nepal. A press release from the Consulate General of Nepal based in New York identifies the objects as Seated Ganesha (ca. 15-16th century); Seated Buddha in Bhumisparsa Mudra (ca. 14-15th century); and a Wooden Beam Depicting a Colored Aspara (ca. 13th century).[9] In total the works are believed to have a value of $125,000.[10]

Afghanistan: 33 Artifacts

Following the restitution ceremony of Nepalese antiquities, 33 objects estimated at $1.8 million in value were similarly returned to the state of Afghanistan on April 19, 2021.[11] Coming two decades after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by members of the Taliban, this repatriation received high levels of press as marking a turning point for the future of cultural objects in Afghanistan. The works are intended to be displayed at the National Museum in Kabul.[12]

Speaking at the restitution ceremony in April, Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first woman ambassador to the United States, noted “the environment that allows for the plundering of Afghanistan’s treasured antiquities is the same environment that allows for the perpetuation of conflict…a situation where peace does not manifest and the region does not stabilize.”[13] Her commentary, sharing a perspective on looting and conflict also highlighted by Ambassador Pieris, reinforces the extent to which the demand for antiquities trafficking feeds off of—as well as perpetuates—instability.[14]

Thailand: 13 Art Objects

In late April of 2021, 13 works were restituted to the people of Thailand in a ceremony with Ambassador Manasvi Srisodapol. Their approximate value – $500,000. This particular return has been described as the first antiquities repatriated by the NY DA’s Office to Thailand. Ambassador Srisodapol defined the artworks as “national treasures rooted in the unique history and cultural expressions of a nation and its people that cannot be quantified in monetary terms.”[15]

China: 12 Antiquities

In June of 2021,12 objects were returned to China via a ceremony held with Ambassador Huang Ping of the Consulate General of China, New York. Consul General Ping championed the antiquities as representative of the religious and cultural history of southwestern China. The restituted works include a gilded copper memorial pagoda and statue of a seated figure.

Cambodia: 27 Relics

Most recently, the Manhattan DA’s Office met with the Cambodian Ambassador to the United States, Chum Sounry, as well as Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, H.E. Phoeurng Sackona, for a restitution ceremony on June 9, 2021. The 27 objects returned, worth approximately $3.8 million, trace the art historical and cultural breadth of the state over time, including Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. Phoeurng Sackona, PhD described the works as representative of Cambodia’s “awe-inspiring past.”[16] Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. highlighted the restitution as reconstructing the “link between the nation’s classical Angkor era and its modern customs and beliefs that, for far too long, was disrupted by the greed of stolen antiquities traffickers.”[17] Two dozen of these objects were recovered from Kapoor’s network. The remaining three were restituted in connection to the case against Nancy Wiener, another former antiquities gallerist linked to Kapoor.[18]

These restitutions investigated and carried out by the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (formed in 2017) as the first unit to combat antiquities crime in the city) and HSI are only the most recent in a series of repatriations tied to the Kapoor case. Four additional sculptures, ranging in date from 11th to 16th century and collectively valued over $1 million, were returned to Tamil Nadu, India from the DA’s Office throughout 2016-2018.[19] Several more artifacts have been turned over to assist investigations and have been restituted to their countries of origin by public and private institutions.[20]

A Global Reach: Impacted Museum Collections

The crackdown on Kapoor’s international looting scheme leaves a trail of compromised collections in its wake, exposing the purchases from and personal gifts of the dealer to major institutions across the globe. The thousands of objects tied to Kapoor—now recognized as “one of the most prolific art smugglers in the world”—has prompted provenance reassessments worldwide, including:[21]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York)

Following the charges filed against Kapoor in 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it is actively working with the Indian government to review collection objects connected to the now infamous dealer. According to The New York Times, Kapoor has been the source of 15 objects acquired by the museum over the past three decades.[22] These include the gifts of a 10th century sculpture, The God Revanta Returning from a Hunt, and a first century BCE work, Rattle in the Form of a Crouching Grotesque Yaksha, as well as purchases from Kapoor’s gallery Art of the Past, such as the 8th century sculpture, Kamadeva, the God of Love.

The Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts)

Known as one of the most significant collections of Indian and South Asian art stretching from the 18th century to today, the Peabody Essex Museum was similarly affected by Kapoor’s illicit scheme. In 2015, the museum voluntarily submitted works to US HIS for further investigation.[23] One such work was a 19th century portrait, Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjavur and his son Shivaji II, acquired by the museum from Art of the Past in 2006.[24]

The National Gallery of Australia (Canberra, Australia)

In 2014, the National Gallery of Australia (“NGA”) agreed to return Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), one of several objects connected to Kapoor within the collection. The restitution came after a drawn out discussion over the provenance of the 11-12th century sculpture, purchased from Art of the Past in 2008.[25] The NGA had originally argued there was “no conclusive evidence” proving the $5.6 million-valued Chola bronze had been illegally acquired by Kapoor.[26] Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott later confirmed the object’s restitution to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Additional works from the NGA were returned to India in 2016.[27]

Several other restitution cases stemming from Kapoor-sold artworks have emerged from public collections, including the Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), which returned a statue of Ganesha to India (2014); Honolulu Museum of Art (Honolulu, Hawaii), which restituted 7 artifacts to India (2015); Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida), which turned over questionable sculptures to HIS (2016); and Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, Alabama), which formally deaccessioned and returned a sculpture to the state of India at a ceremony in New York (2018). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, California) holds 62 works tied to Kapoor in its collection. The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois), Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (San Francisco, California), Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Gallery (now National Museum of Asian Art; Washington, D.C.), and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, Massachusetts) also house several of Kapoor’s objects. Each of these museums has stated they are working to review the provenance of the works in question—commitments released through various public statements over the past decade.

A key feature of Operation Hidden Idol and the Kapoor investigation has been cooperation with both public and private institutions. This has involved coordinated international efforts and openness on the part of private collectors, elements that need to continue with future investigations.

Looking Ahead: Kapoor’s Legacy & Efforts to Stem the Illicit Arts Trade

In the decade since Kapoor’s initial arrest, what if anything has changed in efforts to push back against the lucrative antiquities trade? Recent legislation in the United States and the European Union works to strengthen regulations that may help to close loopholes in the art market. Some drafted with specific art world idiosyncrasies in mind, both the US Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (incorporated into the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021) and 5th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive of 2019 enforce stricter requirements on art dealers and collectors. As of January 1, 2021, the United States requires the report of cash transactions of more than $10,000 and antiquities dealers are expected to conduct due diligence on their clients and their sources of funds.[28] The EU Directive defines antiquities dealers and auction houses as newly regulated parties and demands identity verification of transactions worth more than €10,000.[29] These requirements address some of the appendages of the art world implicated in Kapoor’s scheme.

Legal action and new regulations are not the only routes available. From 2013-15, UNESCO, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture and supported by the government of Italy, worked with the Afghan Customs Department and Border Management Task Force to implement training for Afghan customs officers targeting the illegal trafficking of antiquities.[30] The program continued to run under the supervision of the Afghan National Customs Academy through 2017.[31] In 2019, the University of Arizona, supported by US government organizations, teamed up with counterparts in Afghanistan to run a course on cultural property, international law, and the protection of cultural heritage.[32] Additional programs organized by the Cultural Antiquities Task Force (CATF) of the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs remain in effect today.

Parallel efforts have taken place across states that, like Afghanistan, were victims of Kapoor’s antiquities trafficking network. In 2015, Cambodia hosted training sessions sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNESCO which targeted educating military officials on the practical implementation of guidelines set out by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Under the Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia, theft, looting, or the destruction of cultural objects can result in a penalty of 1-5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 10 million KHR.[33] In addition, US officials have worked closely with Nepal to protect the state’s cultural heritage, especially in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in the region. The US Embassy in Kathmandu has administered relief funds dedicated to restoration efforts.[34] Nepalese officials have also been closely involved in preventing the looting of impacted sites.[35] Similarly, in the years since Kapoor’s arrest, Indian authorities have continued to fight against the systematic trafficking of antiquities taking place within its borders. Articles published by both The UNESCO Courier and the Center for Art Law argue new, tougher regulations and stricter implementation of existing laws are required to safeguard the future of India’s cultural heritage.[36]

As trial proceedings continue in Tamil Nadu, where Kapoor is charged with the theft and illegal export of antique idols and faces the maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, the time frame for the Manhattan District Attorney’s extradition and prosecution of the ex-antiquities dealer remains uncertain.[37] Kapoor, who pleaded not guilty, has been remanded to Puzhal Central Jail in Chennai after his requests for release on bail were denied by the Madras High Court.[38] Legal questions persist surrounding the DA Office’s duplicate charges for crimes also being addressed in the Tamil Nadu trial.[39]

UNESCO cites the Kapoor case as a successful investigation into the antiquities trade.[40] Many objects channeled through his illicit scheme, however, are still missing. Following the complaint filed against Kapoor in 2019, The Art Newspaper published images of a selection of the reported missing works. It is likely these objects remain hidden by or have been sold through Kapoor’s family and the remnants of his network.[41] Collaboration between US and Indian agencies and Interpol, as well as the reality of criminal prosecution, may help to deter future dealers from following in Kapoor’s footsteps. Looking ahead, the hope is to continue to augment the international cooperation among state and local governments, auction houses, museums, and collectors—set as a precedent here—to combat the global market for trafficked antiquities.


Additional Reading:

Endnotes:

  1. Arun Janardhanan, The rogue’s gallery: Subhash Kapoor and India’s Stolen Artefacts, The Indian Express (July 17, 2016).
  2. Jason Felch, Federal agents comb records for disgraced dealer Subhash Kapoor’s sales and gifts, The Art Newspaper (June 1, 2015).
  3. Arun Janardhanan, The rogue’s gallery: Subhash Kapoor and India’s Stolen Artefacts, The Indian Express (July 17, 2016).
  4. People of New York v. Sanjeeve Asokan et al., 2019 NY 022431 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. filed July 10, 2019). Complaint here.
  5. Helen Stoilas and Nancy Kenney, US authorities file criminal charges against antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor and seven others, The Art Newspaper (July 11, 2019).
  6. Both Vallabh Prakash and his son, Aditya Prakash, were arrested in Mumbai in 2016. ICE HSI, Tamil Nadu Police arrest major India-based artifact smugglers, Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations (November 30, 2016).
  7. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns Pair of Statues Seized Pursuant to the Investigation of Subhash Kapoor, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (March 25, 2021).
  8. Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, New York District Attorney returns Artifacts from 18th Century recovered from investigation to Sri Lanka Permanent Mission, UN (March 26, 2021); H. E. Mohan Pieris, Remarks by H.E. Mohan Pieris, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka at a ceremony to handover artifacts to Sri Lanka recovered by the District Attorney of New York, Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations (March 25, 2021).
  9. Consulate General of Nepal, Press Release: Handover of Nepali Antiquities to Nepal, Consulate General of Nepal, New York (April 2, 2021).
  10. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns Three Antiquities to Nepal, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (April 1, 2021).
  11. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns 33 Antiquities to Afghanistan, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (April 19, 2021).
  12. Tom Mashberg, Looted Objects From Afghanistan Are Returned, The New York Times (April 19, 2021).
  13. Pajhwok Afghan News, Valued at $1.8 m, looted antiquities returned to Afghanistan, Pajhwok Afghan News (April 20, 2021).
  14. For further reading highlighting antiquities looted from Afghanistan see: Matthieu Aikins, How One Looted Object Tells the Story of Modern Afghanistan, The New York Times (March 4, 2021).
  15. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns 13 Antiquities to Thailand, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (April 22, 2021).
  16. Nancy Kenney, New York investigators hand 27 smuggled art objects back to Cambodia, The Art Newspaper (June 11, 2021).
  17. Id.
  18. People of the State of New York v. Nancy Wiener, No. SCI-05191-2016 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. filed Dec. 21, 2016). Complaint here.
  19. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns Pair of Statues Seized Pursuant to the Investigation of Subhash Kapoor, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (March 25, 2021).
  20. A timeline illustrating the restitution work of the Manhattan DA’s Office is available at: Antiquities Coalition, New York’s 1%: Are They Supporting Crime and Terrorism?, Antiquities Coalition (last updated June 2021).
  21. Chasing Aphrodite, Feds: Subhash Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”, Chasing Aphrodite (December 6, 2012).
  22. Tom Mashberg, The Met Reviews Items It Received From a Dealer, Now a Looting Suspect, The New York Times (August 18, 2019).
  23. Brian Boucher, Peabody Essex Museum Hands Over Artwork Bought from Accused Thief Subhash Kapoor, ArtNet News (April 6, 2015).
  24. Malcolm Gay, Peabody Essex Museum hands over artwork involved in trafficking investigation, The Boston Globe (April 3, 2015).
  25. National Gallery of Australia, Questions and Answers: Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Nataraja], National Gallery of Australia (September 5, 2014).
  26. Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Australian PM Tony Abbott Returns Stolen Statues to India, ArtNet News (September 5, 2014).
  27. National Gallery of Australia, Asian art provenance project: Items purchased from Art of the Past, New York, National Gallery of Australia (March 27, 2014).
  28. Crystal Wong, U.S. Anti-Money Laundering Law Set to Change Antiquities Trade as Buyers’ Identities No Longer Concealed, The Value (January 15, 2021).
  29. James Austen and Ivan Macquisten, Is the art trade ready for new EU law calling for tough action on “dirty money”?, The Art Newspaper (December 27, 2019).
  30. UNESCO, Afghan Customs Officers Graduate from UNESCO Training on the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities, UNESCO (March 5, 2014).
  31. UNESCO, Fifth Session of the Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, UNESCO (April 2017).
  32. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Afghan Students Train to Combat Cultural Property Trafficking, U.S. Department of State (April 22, 2019).
  33. UNESCO, Cambodia: National report on the implementation of the Hague Convention of 1954 and its two protocols (1954 and 1999), UNESCO and Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (2016).
  34. Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, Preserving Nepal’s Heritage, US Embassy in Nepal (August 4, 2016).
  35. Ellen Barry and Nida Najar, Nepal’s Cultural Heritage Becomes its Scrap as Human Crisis Takes Priority After Earthquake, The New York Times (April 28, 2015).
  36. Samayita Banerjee, India: Heritage theft remains a challenge, The UNESCO Courier (2020); Atreya Mathur, An Excursion into the Antiquities’ Law of India, Center for Art Law (June 1, 2020).
  37. Rachel Kleinman and Amrit Dhillon, The National Gallery of Australia dances into trouble with Shiva, The Sydney Morning Herald (March 18, 2014).
  38. The New Indian Express, Bail Plea of Idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor rejected, The New Indian Express (September 4, 2015).
  39. Sarah Cascone, New York Files Charges Against Disgraced Art Dealer Subhash Kapoor in $145 Million Smuggling Ring, ArtNet News (July 11, 2019).
  40. UNESCO, Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property: A Toolkit for European Judiciary and Law Enforcement, UNESCO (2018).
  41. Helen Stoilas and Gabriella Angeleti, Whereabouts unknown: see the antiquities US authorities are still trying to track down, The Art Newspaper (July 11, 2019).

About the Author: Julianne Schmidt is a Summer 2021 intern at the Center for Art Law. She is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and History of Art.