Monday 30 July 2012

Cultural Heritage Lawyer Examines US Antiquities Smuggling

Rick St Hilaire has an interesting post detailing some aspects of how Subhash Kapoor got loads of antiquities into the US without anybody taking much notice ('Unveiling the Import and Export of Trafficked Heritage: The Kapoor/Art of the Past Case Examined', Monday, July 30, 2012). His point is that:
Examining the import and export methods surrounding the Kapoor case [...] can help policymakers, criminologists, and scholars think about better ways to detect, uncover, interdict, and prosecute future crimes of heritage trafficking. 
Above all there has to be a will and sense of urgency. This I do not really see, even from this case. As a result of his researching this case, St Hilaire has managed to find details of the initial February 2007 shipment (antiquities described as "garden furniture")  that aroused suspicions, and presents all the details, name of the exporter, importer, shipping company and vessel. What we do not learn is what action was taken by the US authorities at the time against that shipment. Did 1400 kg of (allegedly) dodgy antiquities end up on open sale in the Madison Avenue shop despite the early warning? Where are the 2007 antiquities now? Impounded in a government warehouse waiting for repatriation? If they were seized and proceedings started against the importer, how come the latter, by all accounts, continued import of such items by analogous means? Why when the US authorities intercepted a bunch of antiquities imported under falsified documentation, was the Madison Avenue gallery "Art of the Past" not raided then?

Theflow  of such items continued for another two years, involving a guy called Packia Kumar who ran a company called Ever Star (or Everstar) International Services who exported antiquities camouflaged among copies (it would be interesting to know what the US importer did with those copies). The export papers falsely stated that all the statues in the consignment were recently manufactured as "artistic handicraft products". From ICE press releases relating to seizures of "dozens of antiquities" (some pretty massive) made from January 2012, St Hilaire lists: "the types of cultural objects that made their way to Kapoor in the United States, which went undetected by customs officials at the border". The list is quite an eye-opener.

When Mr Kumar was arrested back in India, did the flow of antiquities stop? Or did Kapoor find (on one of his many trips to the Far East) other methods of trafficking these items? Where does the Singapore episode fit in to the story? What about the shipments through Hong Kong? Were they all organized by Kumar, or were other export companies involved too?  What was Kapoor's connection with Europe?

Kapoor is treated by all the jubilant press releases by the US authorities as some kind of "kingpin" - though without presenting any evidence supporting that claim. The implication is the arrest of this single guy by the ever-vigilant (ha ha) ICE will have severely damaged the smuggling of Southeast Asian antiquities into the US. The less Disneylandish interpretation is that - given the quantity of similar artefacts of unclear provenance on sale through US dealers at present - there are probably a considerable number of individuals with nice little personal business arrangements which are slipping through all sorts of antiquities, major and minor (like coins) through the barrier of bubbles that is the US customs "system". A system which when notified in February 2007 apparently failed to prevent the continuation of the alleged smuggling by this one guy and his accomplices (and open sale of such items to collectors and museums, possibly also other dealers) before actually doing something about it over FIVE YEARS later (even though their counterparts elsewhere were taking more effective action well before that). The US dropped the ball on this one (and how many others?) and the constant flow of, mostly repetitive, "good news" press releases we are currently seeing clogging the Internet seems engineered to hide the fact that in this case the US system took an inordinate amount of time to react (and again, one wonders just to what degree this case would have been prioritised had Kapoor not been arrested in Europe).

Vignette: The US border, a barrier of bubbles for antiquities, and what else?

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