The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (DA) announced that 248 Indian antiques valued at $ 15 million were repatriated in a ceremony at the Indian Consulate in New York City as part of the largest single transfer of its kind. Of the artifacts, 235 (~ 95%) were seized from the disgraced antique dealer Subhash Kapoor, which has been accused of trafficking more than $ 143 million in artifacts since 1974. The remaining 13 have been recovered from other parties in related investigations, each linked to the South Asian antiques trafficking ring to the United States.
Kapoor, a citizen of the United States and India, ran a well-established antique gallery called Art of the Past on Tony Madison Avenue in New York City. The gallery, which has attracted major private collectors and museums as clients, featured historical objects from places such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
In 2011, Kapoor was arrested by Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization) in Frankfurt on suspicion of selling a number of looted artifacts alongside legitimately acquired items. The following year, the trafficker was extradited to India, where he has since been imprisoned and is currently on trial after admitting he was a key player in an international looting plan that targeted temples and vulnerable archaeological sites in all of South Asia.
In 2012, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office officially launched a major US-based investigation into Kapoor called “Operation Hidden Idol”. It took seven years, until 2019, for HSI and Manhattan DA to indict the dealer – who allegedly trafficked more than 2,600 individual items – with 86 counts, including robbery, conspiracy to sight of fraud and possession of stolen goods. Seven co-conspirators were also indicted, five of whom were convicted. Since August 2020, a month after the prosecutor’s office filed extradition documents for Kapoor, the United States has repatriated a record number of objects related to the case, including 149 artefacts in Pakistan, 33 in Afghanistan and 27 in Cambodia.
The most recent repatriation ceremony, which took place on October 28, was attended by Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Jr., Indian Consul General Randhir Jaiswal and Deputy Special Agent in charge of the US HSI Erik Rosenblatt. In a statement, Vance said the event “serves as a powerful reminder that individuals marauding sacred temples in search of individual profit are committing crimes not only against a country’s heritage, but also against its present. and its future ”.
“I am honored to return these 248 coins to the Indian people,” continued Vance.
One of the items returned at the event was a 12th-century bronze Shiva Nataraja, a sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva in the center of a flaming halo. The artifact, which is valued at $ 4 million, was illegally removed from an Indian temple in the 1960s and acquired by Doris Wiener. Wiener, another New York dealer in South Asian antiques of dubious provenance, regularly bought items from Kapoor as well as Douglas Latchford, a scholar-dealer who trafficked in looted Khmer artifacts (and was charged in 2019.) The Asia Society, which the prosecutor’s office described as the “unwitting recipient” of Shiva Nataraja, cooperated in the investigation.
Along with his counterparts, Kapoor has solidified his place in the ecosystem of the art world by donating or selling valuable antiques to leading museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum. of Art, the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Since information about the merchant came to light, these institutions have undertaken to examine the provenance of the artefacts and, in some cases, returned them.
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