Nearly 250 Antiquities Repatriated to India

Bronze Nandikesvara, Bronze Shiva Nataraja, and Bronze Kankalamurti (Courtesy the office of Manhattan’s District Attorney)

The Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Office announced that 248 Indian antiquities estimated at $15 million were repatriated at a ceremony at the Indian Consulate in New York City in the largest single transfer of this kind. Of the artifacts, 235 (~95%) were seized from the disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who has been charged with trafficking over $143 million worth of artifacts since 1974. The remaining 13 were recovered from other parties during related investigations, each tied up with the web of South Asian antiquities trafficking in the US.

Kapoor, a citizen of the US and India, ran a well-established antiquities gallery called Art of the Past on New York City’s tony Madison Avenue. The gallery, which attracted significant private collectors and museums as clients, offered historic objects from locales including Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

In 2011, Kapoor was arrested by Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization) in Frankfurt under suspicion of having sold a number of looted artifacts alongside legitimately acquired ones. The following year, the dealer was extradited to India, where he has been imprisoned since and is currently on trial after admitting that he was a key player in an international looting scheme that targeted vulnerable temples and archaeological sites throughout South Asia.

In 2012, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Manhattan DA’s Office formally commenced the extensive US-based investigation into Kapoor, called “Operation Hidden Idol.” It took seven years, until 2019, for HSI and the Manhattan DA to charge the dealer — who is believed to have trafficked over 2,600 individual objects — with 86 criminal counts, including grand larceny, conspiracy to defraud, and possession of stolen property. Seven co-conspirators were also indicted, five of whom have been convicted. Since August 2020, a month after the DA’s office filed extradition paperwork for Kapoor, the US has repatriated a record number of items connected to the case, including 149 artifacts to Pakistan, 33 to Afghanistan, and 27 to Cambodia.

The most recent repatriation ceremony, which took place on October 28, was attended by Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Jr., India Consul General Randhir Jaiswal, and US HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge Erik Rosenblatt. In a statement, Vance said that the event “serves as a potent reminder that individuals who maraud sacred temples in pursuit of individual profit are committing crimes not only against a country’s heritage but also its present and future.”

“I am honored to return these 248 pieces to the people of India,” Vance continued.

One of the items restituted at the event was a 12th-century bronze Shiva Nataraja, a sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva in the center of a flaming halo. The artifact, which is valued at $4 million, was illegally lifted from an Indian temple in the 1960s and acquired by Doris Wiener. Wiener, another New York-based dealer of South Asian antiquities of dubious provenance, regularly purchased items from Kapoor as well as Douglas Latchford, a dealer-scholar who trafficked in looted Khmer artifacts (and was indicted in 2019.) The Asia Society, whom the DA’s office described as the “unwitting recipient” of the Shiva Nataraja, cooperated with the investigation.

Along with his counterparts, Kapoor solidified his place in the art world ecosystem by gifting or selling valuable antiquities to leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Since information about the dealer has come to light, these institutions have expressed commitments to reviewing the provenance of the artifacts and, in some cases, restituted them.

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