Thursday 26 July 2012

Millions of Dollars' Worth of Antiquities Slipped Unchallenged Through US Customs for Several Years

"Since 2007, Homeland Security Investigations has repatriated over 2,500 items to more than 23 countries", or some-such stuff is constantly repeated by the federal authorities in one of the world's biggest markets for dodgy antiquities. The number of people guilty of dodgy dealings with those artefacts arrested and tried is far smaller. Probably, if the truth were known, countable on the fingers of one hand.

The scale of what is routinely getting through is vividly illustrated by the seizure today of a large number of items from the Sofia Storage facility on West 83rd Street, New York as part of a Homeland Security Cultural Property, Art and Antiques Program investigation. Authorities seized more than $15 (20?) million worth of sandstone and bronze statues and other Indian cultural artefacts. A number of the pieces are said to be Chola period, and some reportedly still have dirt on them. A federal source said most of the items being recovered are believed to have been stolen directly from temples in India, smuggled to Hong Kong, and then shipped to New York. There had apparently been another seizure in the same investigation, including the seizure of dozens of antiquities worth nearly $10 million from another storage unit allegedly leased by the same person in New York.

Only News 4's cameras were rolling when federal agents uncovered exotic treasures hidden in a storage facility on the Upper West Side.
“The statues and sculptures recovered today are worth millions in the antiquities business, but they are priceless to the nations that they were robbed from,” said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York. “These seizures send a clear message to looters, smugglers and dealers to think twice before trying to profit from illicit cultural property in the United States.”
Bla bla. Guess who these artefacts belonged to? Were they being stored on behalf of a fly-by-night smuggler taking the risk he'd not be caught, but foiled by the ever-vigilant ICE the moment he tried to offload dodgy antiquities onto the US market? No, they apparently belonged an established Upper East Side art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, who opened his gallery the Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue in 1976 (and Nimbus Import Export Inc. which has been registered at the same address since 2005) and since then has run a dynamic business selling "art of the past" like the items seized in the warehouses to collectors and museums all over the US, and possibly beyond. In contrast to the ICE/HSI bla-bla, it is clear that the current 'owner' of these objects knew he really would not have too much trouble getting this stuff into the US and selling it there quite openly to no-questions-asked buyers.
Homeland Security Investigations agents executed search warrants issued for the storage units, allegedly owned by Subhash Kapoor, the owner of Art of the Past Gallery. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office also issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor for possessing the stolen property.
Well, the US is going to find it difficult to arrest Kapoor as he was - as I reported here several months ago - arrested in Germany and by the time the US authorities got around to doing anything had been extradited to India where he is presently held behind bars. Only then did the US authorities decide that they ought to look more closely at what had been happening under their noses, despite having been notified by the Indian Consulate about his alleged activities as long ago as February 2007. If Kapoor had not been arrested while travelling abroad and an international fuss kicked up, one wonders just how long it would have taken the US authorities to get around to progressing the "investigation" that had not apparently advanced very far when he left the US last year. Is it not the case that it's only because Kapoor is pending prosecution in another country that the US authorities decided that they'd look pretty stupid if they did not make the effort to learn what was stashed away in his warehouses?

Kapoor is accused of importing goods under falsified import documentation, for example  it is alleged that the US authorities were informed in 2007 that several crates on their way to the US manifested as ‘marble gardens tables sets’ in fact contained stolen antiquities, it is not reported what the US authorities did about it . Kapoor’s gallery has been closed for at least for a month, according to neighboring business. A sign posted on its door says, "Closed for Inventory, via appointment only".

ICE said that some of the artefacts recently seized had been displayed in “major international museums worldwide,” and that other pieces that match those listed as stolen “are still openly on display in some museums”. According to the dealer's website, the gallery has sold Indian art to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and other prestigious museums. Rick St Hilaire surmises that these museums too may soon have visits from US authorities. And let us not forget the stash of artefacts held in Singapore by Jazmin Asian Arts , some of which - due to an acrimonious court case - are known to have come from Kapoor.

Of course there might be another reason for the warrant, as we all know, American exceptionalism does not like US citizens to be held in foreign jails for offences committed in other countries. Is the warrant for Kapoor's arrest not part of a plan to get him extradited back to the US to face charges against US Customs laws back at home? Since history shows that so few people have been jailed as a result of previous US investigations of this type, we may speculate that any charges against Kapoor in the US might even be dropped the moment he sets foot back on US soil.

Jamie Schram, Laura Italiano and Dan Mangan, 'Feds raid Manhattan storage facility containing 'stolen' art', New York Post July 26, 2012

Marc Santia, 'Millions in Stolen Indian Artifacts Seized in Manhattan: Officials', NBC New York, Jul 26, 2012

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