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:
A lawsuit filed in New York State court last week could provide one of the strongest disincentives yet to dealing in looted cultural objects. Subhash Kapoor‘s gallery in New York, Art of the Past, has been sued for a laundry list of private law violations; including “fraud, rescission, unjust enrichment, contractual indemnity, and breach of contract” based on the sale of this bronze statue known as Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja). The plaintiff is the Australian gallery which purchased this work in 2008.
This lawsuit is exactly what should happen when a purchaser with clean hands purchases a work of art from a dealer who knew that a work of art was looted or stolen. I’ve argued before that acquisitions like this defraud the legitimate trade in works of art, and also corrupt our understanding of history.
The NGA lawsuit, to our knowledge, is unprecedented. American museums and private collectors have returned hundreds of looted objects to Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Cambodia and other countries in recent years. In nearly all those cases, dealers had provided standard warranties guaranteeing good title to the objects. And yet not one museum or collector had filed a similar lawsuit…that we know of.
So why haven’t lawsuits like this occurred with more regularity? Here’s why I think they have been rare. They should be happening every time looted art is repatriated. As any first year law student learns, if someone sells you stolen property, every legal system allows you to bring an action against the launderer of stolen property. But this has not happened in the antiquities trade for a couple reasons. First, many curators and museum officials had too much knowledge of the illicitness of objects they were acquiring. A lawsuit like this would have embarrased institutions like the Getty or the Met or the MFA in Boston by raising uncomfortable question about what due diligence was taken before an acquisition. In this case, it seems as if the National Gallery of Australia is comfortable in defending its due diligence procedures to a court. The NGA alleges in its complaint that it undertook due diligence procedures, while also relying on the warranties given by Art of the Past. But the NGA asked the Art loss register if the statue was stolen, examined letters from the previous owner of the statue, consulted the ‘Tamil Nadu Police website’, checked the records produced by the Archaeological Survey of India, and finally consulted with a bronze expert in India who supported the acquisition.
Perhaps another reason that a suit like this is unique, is the secret nature of the art trade itself. Buyers and sellers are anonymous. But that is changing. When you can trace the path of material through the various purchasers, the market for illicit material shrinks. And that is a very good thing, and why we should all watch this suit in New York closely.
In an op-ed in the Australian, Lyndel Prott argues that Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis should repatriate this Bronze idol to India:
Documents revealed in The Australian state the gallery, under director Ron Radford, paid alleged smuggling mastermind Subhash Kapoor $5.1 million for the 900-year-old statue. There have been several other notorious cases of similar bronzes. One arrived in the Norton Simon Museum, California, in 1973. India protested and, following an agreement in 1976 to allow its exhibition in that museum for nine years, it was returned to India.
These events, widely published at the time, should have put any potential purchaser on notice to research diligently the origin of any such item offered. Furthermore, the International Council of Museums has had a strict code of ethics since 1986 concerning acquisitions. A museum professional should not support illicit traffic and should follow national legislation and the principles of the 1970 convention, which require governments, for example, to take the necessary measures to prevent museums from acquiring cultural property originating in another state party and that has been illegally exported.
Australia adopted federal legislation to implement that agreement, the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, and set up the National Cultural Heritage Committee to supervise its workings. It is an offence to import an object that has been exported illegally — as is the case of the idol in the hands of the NGA. If such an object arrives in Australia, it may be forfeited. A person who imports an object, knowing that the object is a protected object of a foreign country whose export was prohibited by a law of that country, is guilty of an offence.
Let us live up to our international commitments and our own legislation. We await a thorough and rapid review of this case and a decision from the new Attorney-General.
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.
Jason Felch reports that Federal agents have seized a whopping $100 million in art in the past couple years from Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor, an American citizen, is subject to potential criminal charges for dealing in looted and stolen art: a pending criminal trial in India; and he may be prosecuted in the United States as well.
Felch reports on the staggering number of esteemed Museums which have purchased material from Kapoor since:
Since 1974, Kapoor and his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past have sold or donated ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum f¿r Indische Kunst in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and the National Gallery of Australia. To date none of the museums has been accused of possessing stolen art or conspiring with Kapoor. Several have acknowledged having objects from Kapoor but declined to comment on the ongoing investigations.
This is a staggering array of objects and some very fine Museums.
The piece demonstrates how integral federal forfeitures are in policing the art and antiquities trade in the United States. Whether all that art will be repatriated to Southeast Asia remains to be seen, but the institutions which have material which passed through Kapoor would be wise to start preparing a strategy for the inevitable questions which will arise. Right now he looks to be as big an alleged antiquities smuggler as any of the names we’ve seen deal in art from Europe or even some of the notorious dealers in looted Mediterranean antiquities.