It is the stuff of intrigue: An Indian art smuggling case, investigators hot on the trail of a suspect, the alleged suspect escaping their clutches only to be arrested in another country and extradited to face charges. Subhash Kapoor, the well-known art dealer and collector, who was once the toast of Manhattan and museums across the United States, now stands accused of smuggling Indian artifacts. He had been on the Interpol Red Notice list, the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, and was arrested in late 2011 at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany, according to a July 26 press release from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. agency investigating the case. On July 14, Germany extradited Kapoor to India, where he faces criminal charges.
Kapoor has been in the art business going on 40 years now. He opened his Madison Avenue gallery in 1976, two years after arriving in the United States. He was believed to be following family tradition. His father, Parshottam Ram Kapoor, had been an art collector. On his father’s death in 2007, Subhash Kapoor gifted 108 Indian drawings he inherited, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Columbia University.
“It is my way of giving back to the field,” he was quoted as saying in a May 2009 article carried in Apollo Magazine, which bills itself as an authority on art and artifacts for collectors. Kapoor also prided himself on familiarizing Americans with fine Indian paintings through his gallery. “In those days (1976) about 95% of people walked in and said ‘Oh, these are Persian paintings.’ Today, 95% say ‘Oh, these are Indian.’ There’s been a huge education,” he was quoted as saying.
Illegal Trade The allegations against Kapoor are just the latest in long history of theft of Indian art and artifacts. With its ancient civilization, India’s monuments and archeological sites have been robbed for hundreds of years, not least during the colonial period. To this day, many Indians would classify items in the Tower of London as artifacts stolen from India. The line that divides those who steal from those who buy the art, including museums, is indeed fine. According to Roger Atwood, author of “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World,” the “legitimate trade and the illegal trade, were in fact, largely one and the same,”
In the post-Independence period, tourists have been a major conduit for exporting stolen objects, including pieces of wood and stone torn off temples and monuments in India and Nepal and hawked to them by members of the local populace. In fact, it was such an accepted activity that even though India had a law against it in 1964, only in 1970 did the United Nations come up with the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Not surprisingly, European buyer-countries showed the most reluctance to sign on to the U.N. treaty, possibly owning so much of the cultural wealth of countries they had once colonized. To its credit, the U.S. was the first to sign on in 1983, and today the HSI has agents operating in more than 70 countries and a special program to investigate “stolen” cultural heritage.
According to cultural heritage lawyer and former prosecutor Rick St. Hillaire of New Hampshire, international antiquities trafficking networks use legitimate and illegitimate shipping methods to advance “cultural heritage crimes.”
In an interview with Desi Talk, St. Hillaire questioned what Homeland Security was doing since 2007 when Indian authorities alerted the agency to Kapoor’s alleged activities. On the issue of antiquities and cultural heritage trafficking, the U.S. has a “seize and send” policy, i.e. to recover heritage material and send it back to the country it belongs to, not necessarily to investigate a case.
St. Hillaire said Homeland Security has extremely talented and skilled agents in the field of antiquities, but the leadership lacks the political will and has not put in the resources into antiquities trafficking especially after 9/11; it has also not complied with Congress’ demand that it conduct 100 percent screening of cargo coming in on ocean liners.
He examined the Kapoor case on his blog. Kapoor, he noted, also owns a company named Nimbus Import Export on Madison Avenue. The bill of landing gave the address for Nimbus as West Nyack, N.Y., even though its actual location is the same as Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue, he noted.
St. Hillaire praised the Manhattan district attorney for issuing a warrant for Kapoor’s arrest under New York state law. This could mean that after Indian authorities deal with Kapoor, he could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges as an American citizen.
Art Seized On July 26, special agents of the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program at U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, seized several sandstone and bronze statues from storage facilities in Manhattan allegedly belonging to Kapoor. Along with the search warrant, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor for allegedly possessing stolen property, the HSI release said.
Agents seized three Chola period bronzes, which are suspected of having been stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. The sculptures depict Uma Parvati (valued at nearly $2.5 million), Sivagami Amman and Murugan. The Tamil Nadu police website apparently lists these three as stolen items, and Interpol also has them listed on its Stolen Works of Art Database.
Other items included a sandstone statue depicting Kubera, from the Gupta period; a grey schist (a coarse grain metamorphic rock) statue depicting Herkules-Vajrapani from the Kandahran Kushan period; and a sculpture depicting Shakyamuni Buddham from the Chola period. The HSI estimates the total value of the objects seized at more than $20 million.
In January, HSI special agents seized dozens of Kapoor’s antiquities with an estimated value of nearly $10 million, including a five-foot-tall head of Buddha weighing about 1,600 pounds, and a life-size stone figure weighing some 500 pounds. Both items were seized also from a storage unit allegedly leased by Kapoor in New York.
Museum Pieces Some of the stolen artifacts seized during the investigation have been displayed in major international museums worldwide. Other pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums, the press release said. The Toledo Museum of Art has some of Kapoor’s collection, but told Desi Talk the items were not on display currently. “I can confirm that the Toledo Museum of Art received a gift of 44 small terra-cotta figures from Mr. Kapoor. These items are not currently on display,” museum spokesperson Kelly Fritz Garrow said in an email response.
According to investigators, Kapoor allegedly created false “provenances” or notes on an artifact, to disguise their histories. St. Hillaire said that’s one of the ways of “laundering” a stolen object, either by writing false histories or by creating false histories by planting objects in auctions and buying them back. Currently, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is the only one in the country to have a curator to investigate provenances, he said.
Federal authorities in their release said they had instructed museums around the country to assess what they may possess of Kapoor’s collections, but Fritz Garrow said the Toledo museum had not been contacted either by federal or Indian authorities. “We examine these matters on a case-by-case basis and assess each on its merits, acting in accordance with museum best practices,” she said.
Kapoor is reported to have donated or sold pieces to the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., according to a July 27 report in The New York Times. The galleries did not return calls by press time. However, a spokesperson for Freer and Sackler told the Times, “The only thing we own that the Freer-Sackler purchased either from Kapoor or the gallery Art of the Past is a 20th-century necklace from India, acquired in 1992. Fortunately neither an antiquity nor sculpture.”
A Met spokesman told the Times, that since 1991, 81 pieces had been procured from Kapoor, either purchased from or donated by him. These included several antiquities currently on display. But most of the pieces are paintings that had been displayed by the Met in 2009. He also said no special review of Kapoor’s items was being conducted by the museum.
Calls to Kapoor’s gallery were not returned. In 2010, Kapoor’s collection of paintings was brought out in book form titled, “Rasananda: A Celebration of Aesthetic Bliss,” by Aaron M. Freedman, Jennifer M. Moore and Subhash Kapoor (photographer). Freedman, a well-known curator, could not be reached for comment. The HSI has said it will aggressively pursue the illicit pieces not yet recovered.