A Smooth, Stone Cold Smuggler

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Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions during New York’ City’s phenomenal Asia Week 2017 ended a few weeks ago with fantastic fanfare and sales. This was a relief for the antiquities trade because last year’s events were fraught with frustration, fulminations, and finger-pointing because several artifacts were uncovered as illicit right before they were scheduled to appear at auction.The capers and crimes of Manhattan art dealer and antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor were the cause of consternation at Christie’s. Even before the Asia Week 2016 scandal broke, Kapoor had been considered the culprit in several antiquities crimes spanning the globe.

An important investigation into the smuggling crimes of this well-known and formerly well-respected art and antiquities dealer continues to bear fruit. A shadowy figure in the underworld but a seemingly legitimate figure in the antiquities trade with institutional clients from Manhattan to Canberra, Subhash Kapoor, a U.S. citizen, is currently on trial in India for selling smuggled antiquities. Late last September in Canberra, the Australian Arts Minister handed over three ancient sculptures to Indian Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma. Two of these artifacts had been smuggled out of India by Mr. Kapoor and sold using falsified provenances.

Two of the returned objects initially stolen by Mr. Kapoor were an 1,800-year-old sandstone icon of the Buddha and a 1,000-year-old stone statue of the goddess Pratyangira.  Mr. Kapoor sold the objects to The National Gallery of Australia in 2005 to the tune of a cool $1.5 million. Mr. Kapoor claimed that the Buddha icon had been housed in a private Japanese collection until 1999. However, the cultural heritage watch site Chasing Aphrodite, which has broken the story about Kapoor and the NGA, has photographic evidence that Mr. Kapoor was not being forthright about the acquisition of the Buddha. Furthermore, Mr. Kapoor claimed that Pratyangira statue was a part of the collection of his former girlfriend back in 1990. Chasing Aphrodite proffers more photographic evidence that the provenance was false and that the statute was in Mumbai, India in 2002.

How these pieces were even acquired should be troubling to anyone in the antiquities profession. Apparently, both pieces had been smuggled out from their sacred places by a professional researcher named Vijay Kuman. Mr. Kuman was with the India Pride Project, an association of professionals who keep their identity a secret from the public.

Mr. Kapoor might not have been tried in India if police had not raided the properties of Deena Dayalan, a South Indian gallery owner and art dealer. Evidence incriminating Mr. Kapoor was found at the scene, and investigating authorities have reason to believe that Mr. Kapoor acquired the Buddha icon and the Pratyangira statue from Dayalan.  You can read the whole story about Mr. Kapoor, Mr. Dayalan, and the National Gallery of Australia’s goodwill gesture on Chasing Aphrodite’s website here.

Mr. Kapoor had been a target of the FBI Art Crime Team since 2009. Customs officials received a tip about a ship carrying artifacts as its cargo. Unfortunately, Mr. Kapoor was tipped off as well and had his agents abandon the cargo. The cargo became abandoned property held by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The FBI Art Crime Team poured over documents and discovered that Mr. Kapoor was the intended receiver of the shipload of antiquities that had been abandoned. The FBI and its international partners pursued Mr. Kapoor. He was finally arrested at Frankfurt Airport in 2011. Mr. Kapoor was extradited to India in 2012. He would later stand trial in Chennai, India beginning in 2015.  Read the full story here.

In March of last year, Mr. Kapoor showed up on the radar of American customs authorities again. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents carried out Operation Hidden Idol, which that focused on busting up antiquities smuggling rings in the New York area, collared a person in connection with Ranjeet Kanwat, a notorious smuggler and a top supplier in Mr. Kapoor’s ring. Mr. Kanwat used the alias “Shantoo,” according to the federal informant who pleaded guilty to crimes in connection with a suspicious disk. Back in 2012, federal customs agents discovered a computer disk with a file named “Shantoo” during the course of an investigation. The file contained the mother lode of images of stolen antiquities. The file also revealed the names of several dealers. Read the full story here.

Mr. Kapoor was probably one such dealer. At the time Mr. Kapoor’s connections to the disk became known to agents, Mr. Kapoor was already “awaiting extradition to New York in connection with more than $100 million in stolen antiquities.”

Some of the stolen artifacts displayed on the disk were up for auction at Christie’s Asia Week in March 2016. After federal agents apprised Christie’s that several artifacts that the auction house had scheduled for auction were stolen, Christie’s removed them. For more by SAFE on the Christie’s Asia Week 2016 incident, read on here.

Photo: Indian Deity/Nile

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