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Kapoor’s Assistant Pleads Guilty to Possession of Illicit Antiquities

By Angelea Selleck

In late November 2013, Aaron Freedman pled guilty in New York Supreme Court to one count of criminal conspiracy and five counts of possession of stolen property worth $35 million. Freedman, 41, was working at the now closed Art of the Past gallery owned by Subhash Kapoor. Freedman spent nearly twenty years managing the details of Kapoor’s gallery. Art of the Past closed in 2012 after federal agents raided storage facilities associated with Kapoor upon suspicion of smuggled illicit antiquities. The agents seized 90 items totaling to about $100 million.

Freedman admitted in Court to creating fake documentation and helping Kapoor import stolen antiquities from Central and South East Asia: India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia. In addition, he admitted to creating false provenance documents, liaising with buyers and paying off smugglers.

As part of his plea, Freedman agreed to help Manhattan and federal investigators with their prosecution of Kapoor, who is accused of smuggling millions of dollars in antiquities from India into the United States. Federal agents claim that he is “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor is in custody in India where he is facing trial as the mastermind of a multi-million dollar looting ring.

Kapoor’s arrest in India in July 2012 has sparked a debate over the effectiveness of India’s 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which states, among other things, that no art object more that 100 years old may be removed from the country without a permit. The Act aims at diminishing looting and fraudulent dealings of India’s antiquities but seems to have produced the opposite effect. Namely, in the past few decades several antiquities from Indian temples and heritage sites have been auctioned and bought abroad.

In light of the fact that Kapoor had sold antiquities to museums and galleries worldwide this is a complex case to tackle legally. For example, Freedman admitted helping Kapoor sell the $5 million stolen statue of Shiva Natarja to the National Gallery of Australia in 2008. The New York Supreme Court documents state that the statue was owned by the Central Government of India at the time it was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Ariyalur District of Tamil Nadu. However, it is uncertain whether the statue was ordered to be looted or if the gallery bought it after it had been acquired by Kapoor.  In any case, the National Gallery of Australia is now taking the steps to return the statue, as well as filing a lawsuit against Kapoor.

The illicit trade of antiquities has plagued the art world for decades and still flourishes in many areas of the world. There are few effective legal tools to combat smuggling of antiquities. However, according to UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, all stolen and smuggled items must be returned to the country of origin upon request. Therefore, at least in theory, India should be able to recover their objects affiliated with Kapoor. Hopefully other museums are taking note of what is happening at the National Gallery of Australia and will look into the provenance and legitimacy of the documentation of their purchased antiquities.

Freedman is due back to court on February 4, 2014 for sentencing and his lawyer confirms that his client is “sincerely and genuinely remorseful and repentant and he has taken significant steps toward making amends.”