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FinCEN Files — Antiques smuggler in Tamil Nadu jail, and a trade that flourished even after his arrest

Transactions of $27.88 million were made between March 2010 and March 2017. The SAR noted: “Art is utilized as a money laundering vehicle and is a red flag which is commonly used to conceal cash.”

110 media organisations in 88 countries teamed up with ICIJ and BuzzFeed News to trace the Indian entities and banks named in these SARs filed with FinCEN between 1999 and 2017.

Data from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the US regulatory agency for enforcing money laundering laws, provide a glimpse into the network of companies and individuals trading with antiques smuggler Subhash Kapoor who is now in a Tamil Nadu jail.

The data show that dealings of stolen artifacts and transactions continued years after the arrest of the alleged kingpin.

Kapoor was one of 17 subjects in a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filed on March 20, 2017 by the Standard Chartered Bank, New York, “for obtaining millions of dollars in trafficking looted artifacts from international smugglers and selling them illegally”.

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Transactions of $27.88 million were made between March 2010 and March 2017. The SAR noted: “Art is utilized as a money laundering vehicle and is a red flag which is commonly used to conceal cash.”

The FinCEN Files have been investigated by The Indian Express in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed News and 108 media partners into bank compliances and anti-money-laundering systems around the world.

Kapoor, 71, is in Trichy central jail for smuggling idols from Tamil Nadu temples. He is facing charges in the US as well for smuggling idols and artifacts from countries in Asia. He was arrested on October 30, 2011 at Frankfurt, and extradited to India in July 2012.

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A complaint filed in July 2019 in a Criminal Court of New York by the US Department of Homeland Security stated that the “total value of stolen antiquities known to have been trafficked by Kapoor exceeds USD 145.71 million”.

Over 30 years, Kapoor is suspected to have trafficked thousands of antiques, including statues and paintings, most of them now believed to be stolen artifacts, and 2622 of them were seized, the complaint stated.

An intermediary for Kapoor, the complaint stated, entered Afghanistan during the country’s civil war in the 1990s and bribed a Mujahideen commander for access to an archaeological site. The deal allegedly yielded two stucco Buddha heads dating to the Gandhara civilization.

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In Tamil Nadu, he faces two cases of theft involving 28 idols. It is being investigated by the Idol Wing CID of the Tamil Nadu Police. The cases relate to the theft of idols from the Sundareswarar temple and Varadaraja Perumal temple in Ariyalur district in April 2008, and from the Arulmigu Pragatheeswarar temple in the same district.

These are among the idol theft cases being heard in the court of the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district.

In October 2013, two years after the arrest of Kapoor, his sister Sushma Sareen was also arrested, allegedly for hiding stolen idols worth more than USD 14 million. Multiple raids were conducted by the FBI in March 2016 under an operation codenamed Hidden Idol.

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Nancy Wiener, who owns the Nancy Wiener Gallery in New York and allegedly assisted Kapoor in smuggling of antiques, was also arrested in December 2016 on a similar charge. Sushma and Nancy are currently out on bail.

On December 21, 2016, a complaint filed before a criminal court in New York stated: “Between at least 1999 and 2016, with intent that conduct constituting the crimes”, Nancy Wiener utilized her business Nancy Wiener Gallery “to buy, smuggle, launder, and sell millions of dollars” worth of antiquities stolen from countries including India through some auction houses.

The SAR listed entities with whom Kapoor and his business allies were trading. Most of the bank transfers mentioned in the SAR were made through accounts of Standard Chartered Bank branches in different countries.

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According to the SAR, a firm called Pantheon Worldwide Limited, with two listed addresses, one each in the UK and Hong Kong, had extensive financial links with Kapoor and his alleged business partners.

Pantheon had several transactions with the Nancy Wiener Gallery, and also received a payment from Nancy Weiner.

The SAR stated: “It is unclear why Weiner conducted a personal remittance to Pantheon for USD 150,000, nor the purpose of the funds.”

The SAR stated that Pantheon utilised its three accounts at Standard Chartered Bank, Hong Kong for the transactions.

The UK company registry data show that a company of a similar name was incorporated on July 18, 2016 and dissolved on September 4, 2018. The accounting firm that established the company said that the UK-based Pantheon had never dealt in antiquities — or anything else for that matter. “To the best of my knowledge, the company never traded at all,” a spokesperson for PRB Accountants told ICIJ.

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The Nancy Wiener Gallery did not respond to queries from The Indian Express for comment. For Subhash Kapoor, questions were sent to his advocate S Kingston Jerold in Chennai who said his client was under treatment and the matter sub-judice.

On Pantheon Worldwide Limited and others, Julie Gibson, Head of Group Media Relations, Standard Chartered Bank, said, “We are unable to comment on or answer questions regarding the information below because as noted by FinCEN in its statement of 1 September, it is a crime to disclose the contents or existence of SARs without authorisation.“

But the bank’s spokesperson told the ICIJ: “We take our responsibility to fight financial crime extremely seriously and have invested substantially in our compliance programmes.” In a statement, the bank said: “Standard Chartered has nearly 2,000 staff worldwide dedicated to preventing, detecting and reporting suspicious transactions, and all staff are trained in sanctions and anti-money-laundering compliance.”

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