On those Asia Week Seizures

Image from ICE, CBP, This seizure contained a 2nd Century Bodhisattva schist head from the Gandhara region (likely from what is now known today as Swat Valley, Pakistan,) and is estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Image from ICE, CBP, a 2nd Century Bodhisattva schist head from the Gandhara region (likely from what is now known today as Swat Valley, Pakistan,) and is estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Asia Week in New York is an effort by galleries and Museums to exhibit Asian art and promote sales. According to Tom Mashberg’s reporting in the New York Times, it generated $360 million in sales last year.

But this year the event also generated considerable law enforcement attention, with by my count the seizure of eight antiquities. At least so far It revealed again the depressing scope of antiquities looting networks. Even when a network is revealed, and dismantled, objects appear again on the market for years after a successful investigation—in some cases decades or more. The ICE press release estimated that the Kapoor investigation and Operation Hidden Idol has secured over 2,500 objects, worth an estimated $100 million, with a total of four arrests.

The seizures at Asia Week this year stem largely from the investigation by Federal Agents, in cooperation with Indian authorities, of Subhash Kapoor.

Chasing Aphrodite has comprehensive coverage, and offers this background on the investigation:

The investigation, dubbed Operation Hidden Idol, began with Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India. As we’ve covered in a series of posts since 2012, authorities seized 2,622 objects valued at more than $100 million from Kapoor’s business and storage facilities. Perhaps more importantly, federal agents secured the cooperation of former Kapoor associates and seized decades of his business records, both of which have revealed a network of antiquities looters and smugglers across Asia whose objects Kapoor sold to museums and collectors around the globe. In the years since the Kapoor seizures, Easter and Bogdanos have been investigating the collectors and museums who bought from Kapoor and the suppliers who smuggled looted antiquities for him. Easter’s work on the case is highlighted in this short documentary by director Jason Kohn. This week’s raids at Asia Week netted 8 antiquities valued at more than $4 million seized in five separate raids. Taken together, they offer dramatic evidence that Kapoor’s corrupt suppliers were selling looted objects to other top dealers in Asian art.

Tom Mashberg reported for the New York Times that antiquities dealers resisted the seizures, and complained about the tactics used by law enforcement:

But the seizures have upset dealers who say the sudden confiscations are a heavy-handed approach. Lark Mason, an Asian antiquities expert and dealer who is chairman of Asia Week, said gallery owners are ready to work with law enforcement when questions arise about objects. “Why are they not approaching these galleries instead of treating them like criminals trying to do something underhanded,” he said. The items seized this week were all publicized by their vendors online and in catalogs, he said, not sneaked “in to be sold in some smoky back room.”

Criminal charges are an even more effective response if one of these complicated cases can be made. A Japanese antiquities dealer, Tatsuzo Kaku was charged with criminal possession of a looted sculpture. In a statement, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance stated:

The Theft of antiquities has to be treated as the serious criminal matter it is. Our objective in these cases is to return the stolen item to the country where it was plundered from, and deter others from engaging in the illegal trade of cultural heritage”

Individual criminal responsibility offers one deterrent, but so too can seizures. But those seizures have to change the financial calculus for a dealer. Will a dealer in suspect material suffer diminished reputation or lose sales? Does the public at large, or even the art buying public see these raids the same way those of us who follow the antiquities trade do?

  1. New York & NY, ICE, CBP recover 2nd century Bodhisattva head destined for auction during New York’s Asia Week, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/ice-cbp-recover-2nd-century-bodhisattva-head-destined-auction-during-new-yorks-asia (last visited Mar 23, 2016).
  2. Tom Mashberg, Law Enforcement Focuses on Asia Week in Inquiry of Antiquities Smuggling, The New York Times, March 17, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/arts/design/law-enforcement-focuses-on-asia-week-in-inquiry-of-antiquities-smuggling.html (last visited Mar 23, 2016).
  3. UPDATED > Asia Week Arrest: Japanese Dealer Charged With Selling Stolen Art CHASING APHRODITE (2016), http://chasingaphrodite.com/2016/03/19/asia-week-arrest-japanese-dealer-charged-with-selling/ (last visited Mar 23, 2016).

1 thought on “On those Asia Week Seizures”

  1. I’m not exactly defending anyone, but there needs to be more attention to what is going on in places like India and Pakistan. It would not shock me if Indian authorities knew about Kapoor for years and did nothing about it or that at least some of these idols were sold by Temple Guardians. I’m also troubled about the arrest of the Japanese dealer based on something that happened back in 1982. It’s also my understanding that similar material is widely and openly collected in Pakistan itself , which raises a question why it’s a criminal matter here at all.

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