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:

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Will Internal Audits be the New Norm for Museums?

This Kushan Buddha statue, bought by the National Gallery in Australia is one of the "questionable" objects flagged in the museum's internal review
This Kushan Buddha statue, bought by the National Gallery in Australia is one of the “questionable” objects flagged in the museum’s internal review

Good news for those who want to encourage museums to thoroughly examine their collections. The National Gallery of Australia has determined that 22 antiquities from Asia have “insufficient or questionable provenance documentation.”

Chasing Aphrodite has a comprehensive roundup, including the dealers and collectors who had possession of these objects:

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Prott on Australian museums and illicit art

The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja)  returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014
The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014

Lyndel Prott, Honorary Prof. of International Heritage Law at the University of Queensland has authored a timely Op-Ed for the Conversation. In it she argues the 1970 UNESCO Convention has a role to play in impeding the flow of illicit art. But wonders about its impact on the recent spate of illicit material revealed in Australian Museums:

In September the Australian Prime Minister personally returned a 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) to the Prime Minister of India which had been bought by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and was subsequently found to have been stolen from a temple in southern India.

In a country which has been a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970 since 1989, how did the AGSA, the NGA and the AGNSW find themselves in such egregious situations?

Despite the passage of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 which implements for Australia the provisions of the 1970 Convention, the holding institutions have not undertaken the effort that they should have over the last 25 years.

 

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India requesting quick return of the looted Dancing Shiva

The 900-year-old dancing Shiva statue was removed from display
The 900-year-old dancing Shiva statue was removed from display

The case of the looted Dancing Shiva statue has evolved very quickly. Andrew Sayers, the director of the National Gallery of Australia has resigned. And now the Indian government wants the looted material returned:

The Indian government formally requested the return of a 900-year-old Dancing Shiva statue from the National Gallery of Australia and a stone sculpture of the god Ardhanarishvara from the Art Gallery of NSW last week.

The Attorney-General’s Department issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the Art Gallery of NSW had “voluntarily removed” its sculpture from public display – one day after it was announced the National Gallery would remove its allegedly looted statue from exhibition.

Both artefacts were bought from antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is on trial in India for looting and wanted in the United States for allegedly masterminding a large-scale antiquities smuggling operation.

A first secretary of India’s High Commission, Tarun Kumar, said it was “our expectation” both statues would be returned to India. “We expect a decision in that regard will be taken within the next month,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General’s Department said on Wednesday that there was no time limit in the legislation for responding to the Indian government’s request.

The Canberra-based National Gallery paid $US5 million for the Dancing Shiva statue in February 2008. The statue was one of 22 items it bought from Mr Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery for a total of $11 million between 2002 and 2011.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/india-wants-looting-scandal-statues-including-dancing-shiva-returned-in-30-days-20140327-35lhn.html#ixzz2xHHhXu4p

Federal and local cooperation in the Kapoor investigation

I heard Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos present at a conference a few years ago. His discussion focused on his work in Iraq after the U.S-led invasion. But the main thing I remember was his stated intention to prosecute one dealer of looted antiquities. Just one. He may be getting closer to that goal.

The NY Times reports that the sister of Subhash Kapoor, a woman named Sushma Sareen, has been arrested and charged with hiding four bronze statues of hindu deities. They are valued at close to $15 million.  Kapoor has been described as a dealer in looted and stolen art on a level which would far eclipse even Giacomo Medici or Robert Hecht. Upwards of 200 objects have been traced from Kapoor to prominent museums including the Norton Simon, the MFA in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and others. He has been described by Federal Customs Enforcement Special Agent James T. Hayes as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor is facing looting charges in India; but now it seems his family has become the target of federal and local prosecutors in New York.

Tom Mashberg reports:

The criminal complaint filed in Manhattan says Ms. Sareen took charge of her brother’s business operations after he was arrested and traveled to India to arrange for wire transfers and contact the smuggling network.

Ms. Sareen, 60, who is charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property, was released on $10,000 bail. Her lawyer, Scott E. Leemon of Manhattan, said that his client denied the charges.

In three raids after the initial seizures at the Art of the Past gallery, federal authorities confiscated more than $90 million in Indian antiquities from storage units in Manhattan linked to Mr. Kapoor. Simultaneously, they asked American museums to examine their collections for items they might have obtained from Mr. Kapoor. While some said they had drawings and terra cotta items donated by him, none have reported owning an ancient statue.

  1. Tom Mashberg, New Arrest in Inquiry on Art Looting, The New York Times, October 11, 2013.