August 21, 2019

Restitution: The grassroots work of the IPP pays off again.

Image Credit: Rahul Nangare, 
Indian Revenue Service Diplomat, First Secretary
High Commission of India, London
On August 15, the High Commissioner of India in London accepted the return of two objects looted from India.  The first was a 1st Century BCE - 1st Century CE carved limestone railing, which experts believe may have possibly been stolen from the Buddhist complex at Vaddamānu in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.  The second item, was a 17th century Indian bronze figure depicting the Krishna as Balakrishna, standing on a lotus base.  The Hindu deity is naked except for his jeweled ornaments, dancing with his right leg raised, holding a ball of butter in his right hand.  This statue is believed to have been taken from the area of Tamil Nadu, the Indian state located in the extreme south of the subcontinent.

Both objects were voluntarily relinquished by an unnamed collector said to have purchased the objects via an also unnamed individual, long implicated in illicit trafficking. This unnamed dealer is presumed to be Subhash Kapoor.

For the uninitiated, Vaddamānu in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district might not ring any bells.  But for S. Vijay Kumar, a Singapore-based Indian trafficking expert and co-founder of the India Pride Project, the area is of considerable historic importance and one subject to looting.  ARCA has also noted that excavations in the area have yielded railing pillars, carved in limestone ('Palnad marble), similar to the one that has just been restituted.  One example of such is pictured here. These objects, along with cross-bars, copings, and other architectural elements were used in ancient Vihara and Stupa, some which date as far back as the Mauryan Empire (322 BCE - 185 BCE).  At Buddhist sites such as these, carved stone railings, sometimes square in plan, but more often circular, were used to define the confines of religious sites and could also have been used as decoration to delineate an external processional path.

Both of these recently restituted pieces came to the attention of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) when the London-based collector who possessed them contacted the agency wanting to voluntarily surrender the objects to their rightful home.  The pieces are believed to have been purchased the objects via Subhash Kapoor, a disgraced ancient art dealer arrested in Europe and later extradited.  Kapoor is currently in Indian custody in the high security block of Tiruchirapalli Central Prison in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  There he awaits trial on criminal cases for illegally exporting idols and artefacts from plundered temples.

On 08 July 2019, the Manhattan District Attorney's office followed suit with the Indian government and filed their own formal criminal charges against Kapoor and seven other co-conspirators.  In the court's documentation,  the well organized smuggling ring is believed to have smuggled $145 USD million worth of objects out of India and in to market countries in an operation believed to have lasted for as long as thirty years. Arrest warrants have been issued for all eight defendants on a total of 213 Counts, ranging from grand larceny to criminal possession of stolen property.  


The co-conspirators listed in the July New York Criminal Complaint for Subhash Kapoor et al are: 

Sanjeeve Asokan - Asokan was arrested and charged as a co defendant to Kapoor in India in March 2009.  According to details outlined in the Indian criminal complaint Subhash Chandra Kapoor vs Inspector of Police, para 3., Asokan's involvement in the illicit trafficking ring extended to driving with individual looters to particular villages in Tamil Nadu in order to identify temples which were vulnerable to theft.  Having identified accessible antiquities ripe for the taking, it is alleged that Asokan then supplied the stolen artworks to Kapoor in the United States.  Shipping the loot in staggered shipments from India to lesson the impact of possibly losing an entire shipment should there be a customs seizure.  While awaiting trial in India Asokan is being detained since 25 March 2009 under the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders and Slum-Grabbers (Act 14 of 1982).  As a co-conspirator in the New York case he has been charged with 21 Counts including Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the First Degree (9 Counts), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (10 Counts), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree (1 Count), and one Count of Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree.

Dean Dayal (also spelled Deen Dayal) - IAs earli as 2016 HSI special agents worked with Tamil Nadu law enforcement authorities to arrest Dayal, and other trafficking co-conspirators in Chennai, India.  As a result of that investigation Dayal was implicated as being one of the principles on the ground behind the actual thefts at targeted temples.  In New York Dayal now faces a total of 5 Counts including Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (4 Counts) and one count of Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree.

Ranjeet Kanwar (now well known as "Shantoo") - Kanwar was named in an earlier criminal complaint in Manhattan Criminal Court, signed by Special Agent Brenton Easter of the Department of Homeland Security against New York art dealer Nancy Wiener. According to statements by a former employee of Kapoor, Kanwar was one of Subhash Kapoor's alleged suppliers of stolen antiquities.  His name appears on a computer disk file folder that contained at least three pictures of  looted Seated Buddha #1 found at the Sofia Bros. Storage, in New York County, a storage facility rented by Subhash Kapoor. Kanwar faces a total of 4 Counts in New York including Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the First Degree (1 Count), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (2 Counts), and one Count of Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree.

Vallabh Prakash - In November 2016 authorities in Indian reopened a then 11-year-old case with the help of HSI special agents, which served to identify the smugglers of the now repatriated religious stone idol of Vriddhachlam Ardhanari. Vallabh Prakash and his son, two antique dealers in Mumbai, operated Indo-Nepal Art Centre, a gallery which offered the stolen Ardhanari to Subhash Kapoor and who together smuggled the statue into the United States. Kapoor later sold this idol with false paperwork to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004.  Father and Son were arrested in India in November 2017. Vallabh Prakash now faces a total of 11 Counts in New York including Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (10 Counts) and one Count of Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree.

Aditya Prakash - As mentioned above in November 2016 authorities in Indian reopened a then 11-year-old case with the help of HSI special agents, which served to identify the smugglers of the now repatriated religious stone idol of Vriddhachlam Ardhanari. The son of Vallabh Prakash, Aditya Prakash, was co-proprietor of the Indo-Nepal Art Centre along with his father.  Arrested together with his father in 2017 several cases are still pending against the duo in Nellai, Palavur and Viruddhachalam. It is believed that many of the stolen idols from the temples in Tamil Nadu were smuggled through the involvement of this family, including 13 idols from the Sri Narambunatha Swamy Temple, Pazhavoor in Tirunelveli district on the Tirunelveli-Kanniyakumari border.  Aditya Prakash faces an additional 11 Counts in New York including Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (10 Counts) and one Count of Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree.



Subhash Kapoor himself is listed in a total of 86 Counts in the recent New York charging document.  His charges include Grand Larceny in the First Degree (1 Count), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the First Degree (16 Counts), Grand Larceny in the Second Degree (13 Counts), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree (50 Counts), Grand Larceny in the Third Degree (1 Count) Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree (3 Counts), Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree (1 Count) and one Count of Scheme and Defraud in the First Degree.

Before Kapoor's arrest on 30 October 2011 at Frankfurt International Airport for the charges he faces in India and his subsequent extradition from Germany to India on 14 July 2012, the influential dealer was widely feted in New York art circles.  In connection with his business, he maintained contacts around the globe, in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bangkok, Bangladesh, Dubai, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, with several of his associates implicated in shipping and selling stolen objects supplied with fake provenance to hide their illicit origin. At the height of his operation, Kapoor personally visited Tamil Nadu frequently which underscores the intimacy of the collector-dealer-smuggler-looter network as it relates to these cases.

Reflective of and similar to the recent restitution, Kapoor's name has already been tied to looted antiquities from Andhra Pradesh, the zone where the limestone railing returned via the UK originates from.  In 2016, a 3rd century CE stone panel, illegally exported from India, originating from the Satavahana-era Buddhist Complex of Chandavaram. was also returned to India by the National Gallery of Australia.  In that instance, the museum stated that it had been duped into purchasing the carving from Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery for $595,000 USD in 2005 after the dealer provided themuseum with falsified provenance documentation indicating that the object had left the country of origin before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  That object was later clearly identified as having been stolen from the Chandavaram site museum in 2001.


Terracotta Rattle in the form of a Yaksha 
Metropolitan Museum Accession Number: 1990.309
Likely as a result of the increased pressure by grassroots organizations such as India Pride Project and law enforcement and prosecutors pressing formal charges against actors in the US, UK and India, two museums in the United States are finally taking action in evaluating the ethics of retaining prized antiquities within their collections, which are likely tied to Kapoor's illegal activities. According to an article in the New York Times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has at least 15 antiquities known to be directly or indirectly associated with Subhash Kapoor which have been acquired after 1990.

The first, the terracotta rattle pictured at left in the form of yakshas (male nature spirit), dates to the 1st Century BCE Shunga period, comes from the archaeological site of Chandraketugarh in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is documented in the Met's collection with no other provenance aside from a passing mention that it was purchased from Kapoor's now shuttered Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past.

At the time of Kapoor's arrest in Europe, the Met's management and curatorial staff showed little interest whatsoever in reviewing the legitimacy of the Kapoor linked pieces within their collection.  This despite the spartan provenance which accompanied many of his objects and the fact that it has been proven in other instances that the network falsified provenance documentation.

Now, perhaps in hindsight, and in the wake of recent embarrassing seizures, including an Egyptian mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, an Italian Bell-Krater by Python and a Lebanese marble head of a bull it seems that the Met has finally decided it might be prudent to rethink its stance on some of its art acquisitions from India.

Image Credit:  S. Vijay Kumar
Via Twitter 8 February 2019
Likewise on 20 August 2019 it was finally announced that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had come round to deaccessioning its own contested Buddha.  First identified by India Pride Project in February 2018 and related to the same theft as the restituted Nalanda Buddha identified at Maastricht's TEFAF in 2018, LACMA had, until recently, resisted acknowledging that the bronze in their collection was stolen 58 years ago.  This despite the fact that the bronze was matched via an image India Pride Project had obtained of 14 objects stolen from the Nalanda Archaeological Museum of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Nalanda, Bihar, India in 1961.  Despite this overwhelming evidence, it took almost a year and a half of pressuring the museum,  pursuing India’s claim, for LACMA to decide to deaccession the stolen bonze.

All too often, even when faced with proof of illicit origin, museums weigh the rarity or price of their acquisition above the ethical responsibility of voluntarily restituting objects found to have passed through the illicit market.  When they do, they overlook the cumulative cultural cost of lost art to poorer and more vulnerable source countries such as, in this case, India.  It is critical to remember that each and every object stolen or looted, whether or not the statute of limitations has expired, presents a loss to the source nation's cultural patrimony, and when there are many objects plundered, as can be seen within this one trafficking network, each of these losses has a cumulative negative effect.

Those working in the black market bank of the fact that many sculptures stolen from small villages are less likely to be reported to the police, and if they are reported, that not much is achieved because little documentation is made outlining the details surrounding the theft or the object itself making it difficult to determine the actors involved.  Thankfully illicit antiquities researchers, and now more often key prosecutors, like those in New York, are willing to consider the evidence collected by diligent researchers and scholars, as well as reviewing the historic records of civil servants, even retired ones, in order to access overlooked details like old photographs and museum records which can sometimes help determine in determining if the provenance provided to contested pieces is fact or fiction.

By:  Lynda Albertson




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