For a generation, the art dealer Subhash Kapoor was one of Manhattan’s premier dealers of Indian antiques, selling his stock to some of the world’s most renowned museums. Today, he is described as “one of the most prolific art smugglers in the world” by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
Last month, New York officials charged Kapoor with 86 felony counts and accused him of trafficking $145 million in antiquities since at least 1974. But American authorities must wait before they can prosecute the former gallerist. In 2011, Interpol agents arrested Kapoor in Frankfurt before extraditing him to India, where he currently awaits trial for allegedly running an international smuggling racket.
For decades, Kapoor was a leader in his field, operating a gallery called Art of the Past on Madison Avenue. Unbeknownst to his clients, however, the dealer was selling legitimate artifacts next to stolen goods, New York officials have alleged. It wasn’t until 2012 that American authorities intercepted a package containing a stolen statue bound for Kapoor that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began building their case against the disgraced businessman. Soon thereafter, they confiscated nearly $100 million in antiquities.
The resulting inquiry into the dealer’s alleged smuggling operation triggered a cascade of collector and museum inquiries into their acquisitions from the detained dealer. When CNBC asked in 2014 what they would do with items donated and sold by Kapoor, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said that they would research ownership histories for all the works. Last week, the museum reiterated their statement to the New York Times, declining to say whether it had received any licenses when the Kapoor items were acquired or discuss if the museum believes any of the items were looted. (Some of the 15 objects from the alleged smuggler that were donated to the Met are listed in memory of his parents, Smt Shashi Kanta and Shree Parshotam Ram Kapoor.)
While the Met has yet to issue a judgment on its Kapoor holdings, other museums have taken action. The National Gallery of Australia sued the dealer in 2014 for selling them a stolen statue of Shiva. In 2015, the Honolulu Art Museum sued collector Joel Alexander Greene for $880,000, alleging that he couldn’t prove the provenance of five objects from his collection (all acquired from Kapoor) that he gifted to the museum in exchange for an annual $80,000 payment. That same year, the Toledo Museum of Art announced it would return four antiquities purchased from the illegal enterprise, and more than 110 other objects donated by the dealer, to the Indian government. One year later, ICE officials seized two ancient Indian sculptures valued at a total $450,000 ahead of a Christie’s auction sale because they had been traced to the jailed dealer. And just last week, the Art Newspaper reported that two artifacts involved in Kapoor’s alleged smuggling ring would be repatriated to India after a joint US-UK operation after an unnamed London-based collector came forward to surrender the pieces.
After a request for comment from Hyperallergic, a spokesperson from the Met replied: “We are undertaking a review and will share any relevant information.”
According to the latest New York charges, 39 looted antiquities, valued at $36 million, are still missing. Officials believe that Kapoor hid those items even after his 2011 arrest in Germany by instructing employees to entrust the most valuable items with family members at “an unknowable location.” The complaint alleges that Kapoor worked a smuggling ring that encompassed Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand. He was charged alongside seven co-conspirators, most of them overseas, who would require extradition, though New York has issued arrest warrants for all eight men.