April 20, 2021

Restitution: Manhattan and US authorities hand over two Kandyan Period artefacts depicting the Lord Buddha in Abhaya Mudra stolen from the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

As can be seen, by the restitutions accomplished via Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's team over the last month, New York continues to lead the way in the United States in making a significant impact in the identification and restitution of unprovenanced artefacts; objects which fuel a transnational trade in stolen objects and the depredation of both sacred and archaeological sites.

Image Credit: Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations New York

Looking back over the last month, on Thursday, March 25th the DA's office in Manhattan handed over a pair of Kandyan Period (18th Century) Sri Lankan artefacts depicting the Lord Buddha in Abhaya Mudra, which were seized pursuant to ongoing investigations into the dealings of ancient art dealer Subhash Kapoor.  These historic objects represent the first two sacred artefacts to be returned to Sri Lanka from the United States.

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness, and the abhayamudrā symbolizes protection both aptly fitting to the commitment of the New York DA's Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, who, along with his team of analysts, collaborates with officers of the Homeland Security Investigations, all of whom strive to identify and pursue those who seek to profit from the trade in illegally exported cultural property. 

Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel and Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit handled the Sri Lankan recovery along with Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Special Agents Brenton Easter and John Paul Labbat from Homeland Security Investigations. 

Ambassador Pieris and Asst. District Attorney Col. Matthew Bogdanos exchange agreements establishing the recovery, hand over and repatriation of the antiquities.

Arrested on 30 October 2011 in Frankfurt, Germany and extradited to India in July of 2012, Subhash Kapoor is presently jailed at the Tiruchirapalli Central Prison.  In India he is on trial for smuggling 28 idols from the Sundareswarar temple, the Varadaraja Perumal temple, and from the Arulmigu Pragatheeswarar temple in Tamil Nadu.  The 71-year-old former Manhattan-based dealer will then have to answer to additional charges in the US, for his role in what prosecutors believe was a $145 million smuggling ring which prosecutors charged laundered stolen artefacts from many countries through his gallery Art of the Past.  

Law enforcement authorities in several countries believe that over a period spanning some thirty years, the disreputable dealer handled thousands of looted antiquities incentivising plunder from those within his network.  Pursuant to the USA/New York investigation, the D.A.’s Office and HSI have recovered more than 2,500 artworks, all believed to have been handled by Kapoor's web of middle-tier dealers, thieves, and smugglers between 2011 to 2020.  The bulk of these historic artefacts were pillaged from heritage sites in Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. 

The restitution ceremony for the Sri Lankan pieces in New York was attended by H.E. Ambassador Mohan Pieris, Permanent Representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Satya Rodrigo, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Asst. District Attorney Col. Matthew Bogdanos, members of the District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, as well as HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh, HSI Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Erik Rosenblatt, HSI Group Supervisor Stephen Lee, and HSI Special Agents John Paul Labbat, Robert Fromkin and Igor Gamza of Homeland Security Investigations.  District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr joined the official ceremony virtually. 

Ambassador Pieris, Satya Rodrigo, DPR, Special Agent John Paul Labbat & Apsara Iyer, Antiquities Trafficking Analyst
Image Credit: Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York

For Sri Lankan's thoughts, H.E. Mohan Pieris, reminded listeners that:

Cultural property is intrinsically related to the evolution of a nation’s identity. It forms a vital link to the past, wherefrom the present and future may be nurtured and enriched. It is therefore a moment of joy and cultural renewal when artefacts are recovered and returned to their rightful owners. Regrettably, however, we are dismayed to know that for every return there are thousands that are stolen, looted and trafficked through underground and illicit channels.

District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., for his part, stated that his office issued an arrest warrant for Subhash Kapoor in 2012, followed by a criminal complaint in 2019 that estimated that the “total value of stolen antiquities known to have been trafficked by Kapoor exceeds USD 145.71 million”.  Extradition paperwork has been formally filed in Manhattan in July 2020 which will ensure that Kapoor will face justice in New York as well as in India for the crimes he has been charged within New York's jurisdiction. 

On Monday, the first of April the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced a further return of artefacts, related to this ring of traffickers, this time to the people of Nepal.