The Ultimate Temple Raider?: Inside an Antiquities-Smuggling Operation – The New York Times

Investigators want to prosecute a man they believe to be the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history.

Subhash Kapoor, who is suspected of smuggling antiquities.

The 30 or so guests enjoying spring rolls and white wine were gathered in a small third-floor gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Subhash Kapoor, a convivial Manhattan art dealer who had donated 58 miniature drawings of Indian aristocrats, deities and beasts.

On this spring evening in 2009, Mr. Kapoor, 60, owner of Art of the Past on Madison Avenue, stood atop the Indian art world. After his 35 years in business, museums and collectors were paying seven figures for his Hindu, Buddhist and South Asian antiquities. A 900-year-old dancing Shiva went to the National Gallery of Australia, a thousand-year-old bronze Ganesha to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Now, he was being toasted by the Met for a gift of artworks from his homeland.

“He had become quite a big fish, and he seemed thrilled,” said Eleanor Abraham, a fellow gallery owner in the crowd that night.

What no one in the room knew was that Mr. Kapoor was under investigation on two continents, suspected of running a $100 million art smuggling operation.


Graphic: How to Smuggle a Saint Out of India

Two years earlier, Indian officials had tipped American authorities that a company in West Nyack, N.Y., Nimbus Import Export, was about to receive seven crates from overseas labeled “marble garden table sets.” The contents were in fact 3,000 pounds of stolen antiquities, the Indians said, and Nimbus’s owner was the proprietor of Art of the Past.

Today, American and Indian investigators say they have compiled an enormous dossier against Mr. Kapoor: emails and databases seized under search warrants; bank-transfer records and shipping forms; the testimony of former associates, including his office manager, who were arrested and have agreed to cooperate.

Much of the material has been the product of an investigation called Operation Hidden Idol. American authorities say they have concluded that the modest and esteemed Mr. Kapoor was, in volume and value, the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history. Mr. Kapoor has adamantly denied doing anything illegal.

Their best evidence, they say, is an almost unimaginable 2,622 items, worth $107.6 million, confiscated mostly from storerooms in Manhattan and Queens, and virtually all of it contraband from India.

James T. Hayes Jr., who oversaw the office of Homeland Security Investigations during much of the case, called Mr. Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

“We might see an individual with a handful of pieces,” he added. “What we haven’t seen is someone who basically created a black-market Sotheby’s.”

Mr. Kapoor’s case has been a cause célèbre inIndia and Australia. Many websites devoted to antiquities scandals, like Chasing Aphroditeand Poetry in Stone, have also questioned Kapoor-related acquisitions in museums around the world.

Since 2011, when Indian officials had him arrested on charges of theft and smuggling, Mr. Kapoor has been awaiting trial in a jail cell in Chennai, a port city on the Bay of Bengal formerly known as Madras. When that case is resolved, prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office hope to extradite him to face charges that include receiving stolen property. In April, they filed court papers asking for formal custody of Mr. Kapoor’s trove of merchandise so that it can eventually be returned to India and other nations.

Officials are also urging unlucky Kapoor clients to surrender hundreds of costly treasures that they say were not his to sell. Museums in America and abroad, including institutions in Massachusetts, Ohio, Hawaii, Singapore and Australia, are shedding rare holdings because they came from Art of the Past, which closed in 2012. The next year, investigators seized two statues Mr. Kapoor had boldly put on display inside the Indian-owned Pierre Hotel in New York, trundling them through the lobby in front of aghast executives.

Mr. Kapoor, who started in the trade working alongside his father, rejects the allegations. His lawyer in India, S. Kingston Jerold, said his client dealt only in replicas and never exported or bought actual antiques.

“They’ve cooked up the case, it’s all fixed up,” he said during an interview in his dim, overstuffed office in Chennai. “This case is fabricated for some other political purpose.”

It is a hard fall for a man long lauded by the international art market. In 2009, a prospering Mr. Kapoor told Apollo magazine that his gift to the Met — which has not been challenged as illicit — was “my way of giving back to the field.”

Six years later, investigators say, Mr. Kapoor will be giving back nearly everything.

Thievery in the Temple

For almost a millennium, priests have climbed the ruined stone steps of theVaradharaja Perumal temple, in what is now the village of Suthamalli in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and entered a moss-covered chamber where dozens of 11th-century bronze and iron idols awaited prayers.

Balakrishnan Gurukkal, the latest in that line of priests, trod those steps on April 14, 2008, to celebrate the Tamil New Year. Though the site had once been a vital place of worship, locals now favored another temple nearby, and Mr. Gurukkal had not been there for months. He reached for the rusty lock on the flimsy metal gate and found it broken.

The Varadharaja Perumal temple, which was looted. CreditAmirtharaj Stephen for The New York Times


He lit a candle and stepped inside. The idols were gone.

Within an hour, said Chelamma Kumar, who lives beside the weed-strewn temple in a thatch hut overshadowed by a white and lime-green water tower, “there was a big crowd and lots of police with sniffer dogs and all that.”

Some 200 miles south of Chennai, the modest temple was just the kind of spot bandits and black marketers had targeted for years — rural, seldom visited and barely secure, but laden with intricate, sensual statuary from the Chola period (300 B.C.-A.D. 1279). To major museums and wealthy collectors, such artifacts could be worth millions.

The Suthamalli site held 29 such statues, the police say, some brought over from another temple for “safekeeping” after a bungled burglary there in 1968. Some were for worship, others carried in an annual procession.

“They were things we had managed to protect since our ancestors’ time,” said Mr. Gurukkal, conversing on a cot outside his house in July, shirtless in a red lungi. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see them again.”

The theft had occurred a bit more than a month earlier, Indian investigators said. Since that time, the artifacts had sped from Suthamalli to Chennai to Hong Kong, then on to London and New Jersey; been falsely labeled inexpensive handicrafts; and been deposited in a New York storage unit controlled by Mr. Kapoor. Scrubbed and restored, they would soon be displayed in his gallery, often identified as objects from private collections.

Targets Ripe for Looting

No one really knows when the looting Mr. Kapoor is accused of began.

But India is a ripe target: It is home to thousands of remote shrines and archaeological sites with rare Hindu artifacts that sit unguarded. Vishakha N. Desai, a scholar at Columbia University who knew Mr. Kapoor, said government officials “show little concern for the protection of ancient heritage.”

Representatives from the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police Department, in Chennai, which focuses on antiquities crimes, said Mr. Kapoor was already active in 2005 when he met with an associate, Sanjivi Asokan, at the five-star Taj Connemara hotel there.

Investigators say the men mapped out a straightforward scheme to rob dozens of ancient temples in Tamil Nadu that were watched, essentially, by no one.

Indian prosecutors believe that men Mr. Asokan hired to commit the break-ins would even spread tales of killer bees and bat infestations to keep villagers away from the targets. Mr. Asokan and Mr. Kapoor would then smuggle the artifacts out of India, the police say, and send them on serpentine journeys to the United States.

“The scale and brazenness of the thefts is truly mind-blowing,” said S. Vijay Kumar, a private investigator from Singapore who grew suspicious after noticing that Mr. Kapoor was selling an extraordinary number of rare Indian idols out of New York.

With Mr. Kumar’s help, the Idol Wing set about matching lustrous pictures from Mr. Kapoor’s catalogs with black-and-white images of the Tamil Nadu statues, which had been photographed in the 1960s by French archivists from a scholarly institute in India.

They saw that the objects being offered, in many cases for millions of dollars, bore a singular resemblance to pictures of religious icons that had disappeared from Tamil Nadu and other sites across India. In 2009, the Idol Wing distributed wanted posters of the statues.

Soon, three burglars suspected of being paid by Mr. Asokan were arrested with Suthamalli statuary in their possession, the police say. They implicated Mr. Asokan (who has been charged in India with theft and smuggling) and Mr. Kapoor.

Balakrishnan Gurukkal, a priest who tends the temple.


After comparing notes with those of American investigators, Indian officials in October 2011 issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Kapoor, who was then in Frankfurt for an exhibition, and German officials jailed him in Cologne. In July 2012, Mr. Kapoor, a United States citizen, was extradited to his homeland.

Back in Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney, and Brenton M. Easter, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations, were building their own case. According to court documents, an informant who visited Art of the Past in 2011 while fitted with a recording device discussed the sales of multimillion-dollar statues, including one titled “Shiva Nataraja,” or “Dancing Shiva,” with Mr. Kapoor. The Shiva had already been matched to one of the items missing from Suthamalli.

Mr. Kapoor is accused of skillfully falsifying paperwork to make his items appear legitimate. Some buyers intent on acquiring the objects could have been duped, officials say, but others likely tossed aside misgivings in a rush to augment their collections.

Convinced that Mr. Kapoor and his associates knew that most of his goods were contraband, the authorities raided his gallery and two of his storage units in January 2012. They confiscated $20 million in antiquities, seized decades of paperwork and computer data, and questioned Art of the Past’s office manager, Aaron M. Freedman.

Mr. Freedman, officials have said in court papers, has since linked Mr. Kapoor to countless illegal sales, fraudulent customs forms, fake invoices and six-figure bank transfers to Mr. Asokan. After 12 raids from 2012 to 2014, officials had their 2,622 items in custody.

A Gift for Obscuring a Trail

One big question lingers amid the fallout from the Kapoor case: How could a gallery owner run such a large smuggling operation yet remain undetected for so long?

Chiefly, investigators say, Mr. Kapoor had a talent for importing black market antiquities under false pretenses. He routinely received approval from Indian customs officials to ship items free of inspection. And he relied on confederates in Hong Kong to mislabel his cargo and mix it with other freight to help obscure its trail.

Mr. Kapoor also counted on friends in the art trade to create fake letters claiming his contraband had a history of ownership outside India that predated the temple burglaries. One dealer in Singapore who vouched for him in writing was Paramaspry Punusamy, a former girlfriend. She became a witness against him in 2011, Indian officials said, after the two broke up and sued each other in Singapore — each claiming ownership of objects that were not truly theirs.

“She is behind all this,” Mr. Kapoor’s lawyer, Mr. Jerold, said. “It is a case of revenge.” Ms. Punusamy, who was unavailable for comment, has not been charged but remains under investigation.

The museums and collectors who spent lavishly on artworks from Mr. Kapoor are unlikely to recoup their money. The National Gallery of Australia, for example, bought a dancing Shiva from Mr. Kapoor in 2008 for $5.1 million. After an outcry from India, it returned the statue last fall, and is now suing Mr. Kapoor, whose assets have dwindled, for restitution.

The criminal case against Mr. Kapoor is less linear. A revolving door of prosecutors in India has slowed his trial to a glacial pace. Manhattan prosecutors, meanwhile, must wait until India is done.

Investigators say they are still trying to unravel Mr. Kapoor’s network, and they believe his hoard will surpass 3,000 statues and relics taken from India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Tibet. They also face the monumental task of determining where exactly the items came from and how to return them.

A Dream of Restitution

Today, the Varadharaja Perumal temple in Suthamalli is more or less abandoned. Without its precious inheritance, the temple has seen its long fall from glory into a mossy pile of rubble accelerate. Mr. Gurukkal visits Suthamalli only on the most auspicious days to light small clay oil lamps in the temple’s empty chamber.

When told of the idols’ value on the international art market, his eyes bulged. Could it truly be that just one of the statues he had been visiting so casually was worth many times what he could hope to earn in a lifetime?

“I don’t know whether Kapoor will get punished, but they need to return the idols to us,” said Mr. Gurukkal, overcoming his surprise. “That’s all we’re asking.”

Source: The Ultimate Temple Raider?: Inside an Antiquities-Smuggling Operation – The New York Times

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