The rogue’s gallery: Subhash Kapoor and India’s stolen artefacts

Four years after Subhash Kapoor was arrested and extradited, a string of idols returned to PM Modi by countries abroad have been linked to him. The Indian Express on the 68-yr-old in Trichy prison whose story just keeps growing.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: July 17, 2016 9:14 am
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It is more than four years since Subhash Kapoor was arrested and extradited to India. As recently as July 4, the National Gallery of Australia was talking about returning two of its artefacts following fresh evidence of alleged links to the 68-year-old, once accused of “having created a black-market Sotheby’s”.

The highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to America last month were the return to India of over 200 stolen artefacts, many of them linked to Kapoor. In September 2014, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned a 900-year-old Shiva sculpture allegedly smuggled by Kapoor, during Modi’s visit to the country. In October 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned a 10th-century Durga idol stolen from Kashmir and allegedly smuggled out by Kapoor, to Modi.

Over 30 years, Kapoor is believed to have traded in over hundreds of crores worth of antiques, including statues and paintings, many of them now believed to be stolen. His gallery, Art of the Past, was located at the heart of Manhattan’s art circle, and Kapoor himself was a celebrated donor of art and the toast of openings in New York and other major art capitals.

All it boils down to right now is two theft cases, involving 28 idols. One is still being probed, the trial in the other has just begun.

Trichy Central Prison, where Kapoor is lodged, doesn’t allow its inmates a chair or even a fan, and Kapoor bides his time, as per his lawyer S Kingston Jerold, in virtual isolation. According to the lawyer, Kapoor gets no visitors and only the rare phone call, once in six months or so, from US-based daughter Mamta Sager.

Jerold adds that acutely diabetic and a cancer patient, Kapoor is suffering from lack of medical care. While he was at Puzhal prison, his left hand had got fractured and disfigured after a scuffle with an African prisoner.

Others, like the FBI and private investigator S Vijaya Kumar, who has been tracking Indian artefacts and who thinks the Indian government is not doing enough to bring more cases against Kapoor, don’t believe this appearance of a lone operator.

FBI Special Agent Brent Easter told the Criminal Court of the City of New York in July 2013 that Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen, out on bail, runs his operations, holding the power of attorney to his gallery, while Sager actively helps her.

If one friend turned Kapoor in, another friend and art dealer Selina Mohammad is alleged to have come to his rescue ahead of a FBI raid and is also facing charges. Documents of leading international museums accessed by The Sunday Express show that most of the major idols Kapoor is alleged to have stolen were “sold” to him by Selina who, in turn, acquired them from a Kangra art gallery in Delhi, owned by Kapoor’s father.

The maximum Subhash Kapoor, a US citizen of Indian origin, can be sentenced to is five years in the two idol theft cases, Jerold says. But whichever way the trial goes, Kapoor won’t be able to escape American jurisdiction. FBI Homeland Security has been pressuring the TN government to take up more cases, and prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office hope to extradite him to face charges.

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The curious case of the container

In the 1990s, BBC journalist Peter Watson did a sting operation during an auction held at Sotheby’s in London, and later authored the book Sotheby’s: The Inside Story, talking about Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch, Sotheby’s idol experts. The book said the two would visit unprotected archaeological sites in India to pick artefacts, which were allegedly smuggled to the UK by their counterparts in India.

Of the prominent art dealers in Mumbai and Rajasthan who allegedly worked with them, Vaman Narayan Ghiya was arrested in 2002. Sentenced to about 10 years, he was acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court in 2014 for “tardy investigation”.

A raid on Ghiya’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi yielded around 800 antiques, as per the police report.

While Forge and Lynch were never tried, a premier Mumbai-based art dealer-cum-restorer told The Sunday Express that Sotheby’s later sacked them. “They started their own gallery, Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd (based in London and New York), shifting the route of idols from India to the West. Kapoor started receiving idols, allegedly on behalf of Lynch and Forge,” says the dealer.

Earlier, Kapoor’s father Parshotam Ram Kapoor had been tried for art theft. This was in the 1970s. Soon after, he had managed to move his business abroad.

The time when Kapoor got in the business, smugglers had a free run. A CAG report in 2013 indicting the Culture Ministry said about 91 archaeological sites in India had been found to be “missing” or “non-traceable”, and slammed the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) for not trying to bring a single idol back between 2000 and 2013.

On February 10, 2007, a container from Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port sent to Kapoor landed at the Port of New York. “Somebody tipped off the US Customs that the ship was carrying antiques. Kapoor too received a message that there was possible danger and decided to abandon it. Surprisingly, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence or the Indian Customs didn’t act. That container remains an abandoned commodity, in the custody of the New York Customs,” a US official says on condition of anonymity.

The container was later found to be carrying more than 140 antiques.

In 2009, FBI Special Agent Brent Easter took charge of the Art Crime Team. Soon after, he started pondering the curious case of the container. “He wondered why a container with so many antiques was still abandoned. Going through the declarations and the documents of the person who was supposed to receive it, Easter found it was none other than Kapoor,” says the official. “We started chasing him and it finally led to his arrest.”

The missing arm

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Police Idol Wing had been doing parallel investigation, but with limited resources and men, into individual thefts of antiques, many from the state’s abandoned ancient temples.

Sometime in 2004, a jewellery shop owner was murdered by two idol thieves in Tamil Nadu. The owner allegedly smuggled out the idols stolen by the thieves, and the murder was over a price dispute. The thieves broke one of the arms of a Nataraja idol, suspecting it was made of gold and hoping to sell it. The probe into the murder led the investigators to art dealer M Dheenadayalan, who was one of the suppliers to Kapoor.

Tamil Nadu Idol Wing officials say that documents show Kapoor listed the same Nataraja idol for sale in one of his catalogues, and sold it to Neil Perry Smith, an art restorer known to US investigators. Smith reportedly restored the missing hand of Nataraja. This restored idol then figured in another catalogue of Kapoor.

Sometime in 2011, the Nataraja was returned to the Tamil Nadu Police by a dealer, whose name was never revealed by the authorities.

Dheendayalan, 84, was incidentally arrested in Chennai recently with a huge collection of antiques, believed to be stolen.

In another sequence of events leading up to Kapoor, a vehicle-patrolling team of the Kerala Police stumbled upon a truck full of idols during a random check in 2009. The idols included a small Ganesha stolen from Tamil Nadu.

In March 2009, this led to the arrest of Sanjeevi Asokan, a Kerala-based arts dealer who runs Selva Exports in Mahabalipuram near Chennai. Again, when the TN Police looked into his links, Kapoor’s name cropped up.

Several online documents, including advertisements, show that Kapoor’s Nimbus Import and Export Inc had ties with co-accused Asokan’s Selva Exports.

The Sunday Express has a shipping invoice bill that ties up Dheenadayalan with the two. This bill, of Selva Exports, dated January, 18, 2007, shows a $11,4000 shipment of artefacts to Kapoor on behalf of Dheenadayalan.

Star international Services Inc belonging to Asokan’s assistant Packiakumar is also under watch.

Asokan has been out on bail now for more than a year.

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The angry friend

In 2010, FBI officer Easter, still hot on Kapoor’s trail, planted a mole in his office. Over the two years that followed, as Kapoor fixed deals worth millions of dollars, the FBI listened in on voice recording devices.

But what proved costlier for Kapoor was friend Paramaspry Punusamy’s testimony. Of mixed Tamil/Chinese descent, Punusamy was a Singapore-based art collector. Following a dispute with her, Kapoor demanded that she return the five statues he had gifted her. Punusamy went to court, and after she lost, reportedly gave evidence on Kapoor to the authorities.

Punusamy was not available for comment. When contacted, her office said she was travelling abroad.

In 2011, India tapped Interpol, getting a red alert notice against Kapoor. The TN Police Idol Wing had been long in touch with US Homeland Security.

In October 2011, Kapoor went to Germany. “Ahead of the trip, Punusamy shared a recent snapshot of his, that helped Interpol nab him,” says a US investigator. On October 30, 2011, Kapoor was arrested.

Giving an idea of Kapoor’s high reach, officials say that days after his arrest at the Frankfurt airport, he managed to smuggle out two handwritten notes from the high-security detention centre to his gallery in the US, on four idols.

The notes were seized from Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery and godowns by the FBI during a raid in January 2012, while the four idols were found missing.

FBI documents say that Sareen continued to run Kapoor’s business after his arrest, visiting India, staying in touch with his contacts and making wire transactions.

In October 2013, Sareen was arrested by the FBI for “hiding” the four stolen idols mentioned in Kapoor’s notes. She was released on $10,000 bond, and is under trial.

The idols in question — two 12th-century Chola Nataraja statues, worth approximately $3.5 million and $5 million, and two Chola period bronze items, worth $2.5 million and $3.5 million — remain missing.

The FBI raids yielded CDs with photographs of the four statues as well as of 10 other antiques, along with details of how each of the artefacts landed in Kapoor’s godowns from India, via Hong Kong, and were passed off as Indian art handicrafts.

Multiple raids have since recovered over 2,600 antique items worth more than $107 million from his godowns besides registries, documents of antiques and shipping bills.

Apart from this, investigators in the US have hundreds of mails, photographs and digital evidence of his collections, which they have shared with the ASI. Neither the ASI nor the TN Idol Wing, the only authority actively probing the case, is looking into all this evidence.

An ASI official who visited Chennai in the first week of June told the media they were in the process of retrieving several smuggled idols from international museums. She was unclear on the time this would take.

In January 2012, Kapoor’s aide Freeman, who had worked with him since 1995, turned approver. As manager of Art of the Past, Freeman confessed to having handled transport of stolen idols for almost two decades.

The FBI documents accuse Freeman of handling the items shipping into and out of the US from numerous countries, including India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia. These include a Shiva Nataraja worth $5 million, and an Uma Parameshwari worth $650,000.

The FBI claims to have found that between January and November 2006, the Nataraja was stolen from Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur district and that Freeman and co-conspirators shipped it to Australia, via the US. The Uma Parameshwari is believed to have been stolen between January 2005 and November 2006 from Ariyalur district and sold to Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

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The prisoner

On July 13, 2012, Kapoor was extradited to India.

The cases he is being tried for are the theft of 18 idols from the Sundarashwar temple and Varadaraja Perumal temple in Ariyalur in April 2008, and of eight idols from the Arulmigu Pragatheeswarar temple in Ariyalur, in which the date of theft is not specified as it is an abandoned temple.

His Chennai-based lawyer Jerold complains that they had sought a translator in court since Kapoor can’t understand Tamil, but the appeal was turned down.

He argues that Kapoor has been falsely implicated, and all he did was trade in antique items from India. “Police are unnecessarily dragging the case as they have no evidence. Kapoor was a man admired by art dealers across the world.”

Trial in one of the two cases has started in the Kumbakonam judicial magistrate court in Tamil Nadu. Officers say this trial will take another 10 months, and that the chargesheet in the second case would be filed soon.

IGP, Idol Wing, A G Ponmanickavel refuses to talk about the investigations or the status of the case. Soon after the arrest of Dheenadayalan, he had told the media of his suspected links to Kapoor in a larger smuggling racket involving a Mumbai dealer. Earlier, Ponmanickavel has talked about Dheenadayalan’s alleged role in smuggling an idol of Ardhanarishwarar from Virudhagereeswarar temple for Kapoor. In 2004, the Ardhanarishwarar idol was sold for $3 million to Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia by Kapoor.

A source who knows Kapoor says that soon after he floated Nimbus Import and Export in 2001 and set himself in business, there had been questions over the artefacts he supplied. “He was blacklisted or warned by several museums and agencies,” he says.

Still, it took 11 years for the law to catch up.

Museums and collectors follow certain rules and due diligence before they acquire a work of art. Purchase negotiations can last for over an year, during which experts are consulted as well as a check is done with government data or sites that profile stolen items.

Two leading archaeology experts based in Chennai and Mumbai appear to have vouched for several artefacts sold by Kapoor. Interestingly, the same two experts are now helping the Idol Wing estimate the worth of idols seized from Dheenadayalan’s house.

Vijaya Kumar, the private investigator who is working closely with US Homeland Security and various governments to bring back the stolen Indian idols, says almost every Art of the Past sale seems to have been supported with an Art Loss Register (ALR) certificate.

“The ALR is a for-profit provenance verification company. Instead of scanning the world’s museums and galleries for Kapoor’s footprints, India should ask ALR to provide all certificates issued to Art of Past. Also shipping manifest information for imports into the US are covered by the Automated Manifest System filing. A casual search for Nimbus Imports in this AMS shows shipments were put in marine containers from Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata ports. In all these shipments, Customs papers were filed for garden furniture and brass handicrafts,” he says.

Kumar, who tracked the Sripuranthan Nataraja that was returned by then Australian PM Abbott, says it took a circuitous route. “It was shipped to a lady in Hong Kong from India, who shipped it to a world-renowned ‘restorer’ in the UK. Though their names were in the initial reports, they do not feature in any of the FIRs filed by the Tamil Nadu Police,” he says.

Jerold says Kapoor spends time in prison writing poems and reading historical novels. “There is no one to call or write to. Once in a while, his daughter Mamta calls me asking about his release… He is having a hard time.”

The lawyer doesn’t deny that idol smuggling happens, but adds, “This mostly happens from abandoned temples and archaeological sites. Kapoor was an art dealer, and none of these idols stolen from India was in the missing list on the Idol Wing’s site when he purchased them. How would he know that these idols were actually stolen?”

Kapoor’s ‘millions’, and counting

July 2016: Two Indian antiquities at the National Gallery of Australia are set to be surrendered to India. Both were bought in 2005 for US $1.5 million from Subhash Kapoor. In August 2015, the gallery removed from display artefacts worth $11 million bought from Kapoor.

July 2016: Two idols, estimated to be worth more than Rs 11 crore, returned to Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu from the US. The prime suspect is Kapoor.

June 2016: US returns over 200 stolen artefacts to India during PM Modi’s visit, many of them linked to Kapoor.

March 2016: US federal agents seize two religious Indian artifacts from Christie’s in New York. Valued at about $450,000, the sandstone artifacts were recovered as part of a probe into Kapoor.

Dec 2015: Royal Ontario Museum finds itself part of an investigation over a stupa bought from Kapoor for $125,000.

Oct 2015: Germany returns a Durga idol allegedly smuggled out by Kapoor.

Sept 2014: Australia hands back a Shiva sculpture allegedly smuggled by Kapoor.

Jan 2012: Raids on Kapoor’s premises yield antiquities worth $20 million.

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