Two officials, Dr Urmila Sant and P.S. Sriraman, visited the US after receiving information from the Consulate General of India in New York about the seizure of artefacts by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement of U.S. Department of Homeland Security from the storage of the art smuggler Subhash Kapoor. Close to 100 objects have been identified by the ASI team.


Subhash Kapoor was an Uttar Pradesh-born US citizen and had an antique gallery in New York. He had smuggled idols from India and Afghanistan. Kapoor is also an important link to an international smuggling racket. Interpol had acted upon a red corner notice and he was detained in Germany. He was extradited and faced trial in Chennai. Currently, he is locked up Trichy prison.
To be sure, not every work of art legitimately on the market has an extensive paper trail; however, every work of art that was recently looted will certainly lack documentation. Diligent buyers should be attuned to those gaps, particularly for high-value objects, and do their best to verify anecdotal information through independent research. Even if there is no specific record of a work of art, its ownership history may be supported by circumstantial evidence, such as the collecting habits of previous owners, the provenance of comparable objects, or the recollections of trusted experts in the field.

Subhash Kapoor was an Uttar Pradesh-born US citizen and had an antique gallery in New York. He had smuggled idols from India and Afghanistan. Kapoor is also an important link to an international smuggling racket. Interpol had acted upon a red corner notice and he was detained in Germany. He was extradited and faced trial in Chennai. Currently, he is locked up Trichy prison.
On 21 December 2016, art dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested in New York on charges of possessing stolen property and conspiring to traffic in illicit antiquities. Her gallery, which specialised in south and southeast Asian antiquities, had been raided by federal agents during Asia Week last March, at which time several sculptures were seized. The seizures and her arrest can be seen as part of a broader effort to crack down on the illicit trade in Asian antiquities. In 2011, for example, Indian authorities arrested the Manhattan-based dealer Subhash Kapoor on charges of theft and smuggling, while over the last few years, museums and auction houses have voluntarily repatriated a number of sculptures that had been trafficked from Cambodia. The art world has long recognised that Mediterranean antiquities are at high risk of theft and looting, and participants in the trade are now on notice that archaeological materials from around the globe are to be bought and sold with extreme caution.
The group’s activism has ensured the return of art works like Sripuranthan Nataraja, Vriddchachlam Ardhanari (brought back from Australia), the Sripuranthan Uma and more. These have been returned with much fanfare during the visits of heads of state/government of Australia/Germany. You can see pictures of Modi with the returned Nataraja, Angela Merkel handing over the Kashmir Valley Durga (housed in Stuttgart) below.
The first object Greene donated, in 2003, to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, whose holdings are shown at the Honolulu Art Museum, was an 11th-century Cambodian sculpture. After the work was delivered to the museum on time and received in good condition, the museum struck up a deal the following year that Greene would receive an $80,000 annuity for the rest of his life. The museum made this deal because Greene had offered to loan 37 more objects under the condition that he could provide sufficient provenance information.
It was, but things changed later when I went to the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. I saw these incredible Nok terracotta heads that they bury in the graves for their ancestors. They were potentially million-dollar pieces and I was there to buy them. But then I met the people-the Jos Plateau is very cold at night so we sat around campfires-and they hardly had anything to eat, yet they sit up all night to protect their ancestor's culture from vultures who want to come and dig and steal and kill to get the terracottas. That touches your heart. You can't deal with those things. You don't want to have people dying for art. It was all just a game, but then I was on top of that hill and suddenly confronted with reality. If that doesn't change you, you aren't a human being.
It is a very pretentious title, but yeah I was a big-time smuggler. I was very ambitious. It all started to get serious when I went to Russia after Beirut. In Russia the art smugglers all worked together so that they could have their claws in many different countries overseas. So if you were "in the game" and a promising prospect like I probably was and had contacts with one clan, you could have contacts with all the clans. I was involved in a big way because I knew all the people and could reach out to them. I could get to the countries behind the iron curtain. I was also dealing with VIPs. Don't think this was some kind of scumbag organization-we were dealing with people who were very high up on the political ladder. All you had to do was make sure everybody had his cut.
We now have images of the Shiva-Parvathy bronze in what appears to be a pre-repair condition. The color photograph is not from 1969. Further, the soil encrustations and damage are akin to those usually seen with freshly excavated bronze hoards. An expert collector especially of the stature of Dr Figiel with published works on Indian Metullurgy and Arms – especially given his seminal work “On Damascus Steel” in 1991, would have known that a bronze fresh from such an excavation in this condition must be immediately cleaned to stop advent of any bronze disease. He would have cleaned up the bronze as soon as he had acquired it.
Uncovering a stolen object offers a museum the valuable if bittersweet opportunity to examine its past collection practices. Pinpointing exactly how that object slipped through the cracks can help ensure other stolen objects will not slide by in the future. While there is no failsafe way to avoid mistakes completely, there are concrete steps that can be taken to increase diligence before an acquisition is made. In particular, museums should draw a distinction between objects that are securely documented and those that are ‘said to be’ from a particular collection. Many of the objects Wiener sold, now under investigation, supposedly came from private European owners but had no real paper trail. Some of the sculptures that both she and Kapoor handled, which are alleged to have been stolen, were accompanied by signed declarations that they were outside their countries of origin before 1970. These attestations are now believed to be false. Verbal and written statements do not carry the same weight as documentation in an exhibition catalogue, sale record, or archival material.
Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.
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