This 10th-century statue of Kubera was turned over by Yale University Art Gallery to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. (courtesy the Manhattan DA)

On November 1, a trial court in Kumbakonam, India, sentenced 71-year-old art dealer Subhash Kapoor and five of his accomplices to 10 years in prison for his theft and illegal export of 19 antique religious idols from a temple in the state of Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district. ​​Kapoor led a smuggling ring charged in 2019 with trafficking over 2,600 individual objects worth over $143 million.

In 2011, Kapoor was flagged and detained by Interpol in Cologne, Germany, and was extradited to India for investigation and trial. It’s unclear how many stolen artifacts Kapoor has distributed internationally from his looting schemes across South and Southeast Asia, but several museums and galleries across the world have begun their repatriation efforts for objects that were purchased from Kapoor’s collection. Kapoor, the owner of Art of the Past gallery on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, distributed and loaned stolen artifacts to renowned institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Australia, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.

The 19 idols, stolen from the Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple in Tamil Nadu in 2000, were hardly a fraction of the looted artifacts handled by Kapoor and his accomplices. The report on behalf of the temple was only filed by Udayarpalayam police in 2008, putting a crack in Kapoor’s façade as a highly respected international antiquities dealer.

In 2011, American authorities investigated Kapoor’s storage units across Manhattan and Queens and came across thousands of stolen antiquities. After his arrest in Germany and extradition to India, Kapoor was held in the Tiruchirappalli Central Prison in Tamil Nadu pending his investigation and trial under Tamil Nadu’s Idol Wing, a jurisdiction department dedicated to returning stolen artifacts to their rightful homes.

American authorities have been thoroughly parsing through the details of Kapoor’s smuggling ring for over a decade in an investigation dubbed “Operation Hidden Idol.” Last October, the Manhattan District Attorney (DA) announced that of 307 artifacts repatriated to India, 235 of them were related to Kapoor’s illicit dealings.

Following Kapoor’s sentencing in Tamil Nadu, a spokesperson for the Manhattan DA told Hyperallergic over email that the agency is “in contact with the Department of Justice and Indian authorities about this matter.”

“In 2020 the office filed extradition paperwork for Kapoor and we intend to prosecute him in the United States pursuant to our ongoing investigation,” they added.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...