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Theft, Museums and Subhash Kapoor

The Antiquities Dance

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The National Gallery of Australia has been had.  The $5 million dollar valued bronze statue Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), purchased in 2008, was stolen.  The individual concerned in the transaction was the very convincing Subhash Chandra Kapoor.  In 2011, Kapoor was arrested at Frankfurt airport on an Interpol red notice.  He was subsequently extradited to India, charged and convicted over a vast looting enterprise.

In December last year, a nightmare for the NGA, including numerous other museums, was compounded.  A complaint filed in the Criminal Court of the City of New York charged Selina Mohamed, Kapoor’s long time associate and partner, for possessing and dealing with stolen properties.  Its instigators were the adept members of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Aaron Freedman, office manager for Kapoor’s Art of the Past dealership was also found guilty on six counts of criminal possession of stolen property.  Along with Mohamed, he had been instrumental in forging documentation covering antiquities from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cambodia, to name but a select list.  It was revealed in submitted court documents that the Chola-period Shiva statue was one of the artefacts illegally exported from India, having been stolen from the Ariyalur district in late 2006 or early 2007.

Kapoor, a U.S. based antiquities dealer, has form. Currently serving in a Chennai prison after extradition to India from Germany, his careless victims have spanned galleries in the U.S. to Singapore. Kapoor himself pleaded guilty to trading in stolen property to the value of $US35 million, though his entire business is said to have been valued up to a $100 million.

Such stolen works have included the 19th century Thanjavur painting featuring Serfoji II and Shivaji II, and a gilded 19th century altar depicting the Virgin Mary with Christ Child (The Hindu, Dec 25, 2013).  The latter found itself in the possession of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

Other sold items among the Kapoor stash include a Chola period bronze idol of Ganesha, stone sculptures featuring Dwarapalakas and a torso of a demi god, otherwise known as a Vedanta, stolen from Madhya Pradesh state’s Karitalai village in 2006.

His entire project was intricate, involving the forging of letters of authenticity, and the fabrication of provenance letters.  With the help of the adept Mohamed and Freedman, they proved highly successful in fabricating fictitious ownership histories.  In this case, they were not so much covering their tracks as creating new ones.  In what became an intricate dance of plunder and purchase, the Kapoor ring netted the goods, and willing museums happily parted with the cash on the specious ground that “due diligence” had been conducted.

That these were accepted so readily by various museums says one of two things: that Kapoor was superb in executing his deception; or that museums are all too ready to add to their inventory without meticulous investigation.  This is particularly so depending on the origins of the works in question.  The Hindu (Dec 25, 2013) is of the latter view. “Museums which had bough these stolen artefacts had hitherto claimed that they followed due diligence before purchasing them and their transactions were legitimate.  The recent investigations prove otherwise.”

A. Shrivathsan adds another dimension in the same paper (The Hindu, Jan 9): the Indian approach to stolen antiquities is poor relative to specialised units in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or their European counterparts.  The Italians, being the first to establish a specialised police unit to deal with such theft, have provided a model of necessary aggression in seeking the recovery of such pilfered items.  “Outdated national policies and legislative measures [in India] have been rightly criticised for their inability to curb illicit trade.”

The other side of this unfortunately minted coin is the careless practices of auction houses and museums.  All the museums who purchased from the Kapoor ring claimed some degree of care in investigating the items they purchased.  The Toledo Museum of Art in the US suggested it investigated the Art Loss Register.  The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore claimed it checked its items against an international database of stolen objects.  The NGA was the least precise in its own measures.

Central to this is the disincentive on the part of museums to alter such crafty and careless practices – after all, the Indian government has been at times lukewarm in its pursuit of stolen artefacts.  Shrugs and sloth are the friends of art traffickers and negligent museums.

Given this behaviour, the approach of the NGA is hardly surprising.  It is in a bind about returning the stolen Chola statue. It has confirmed to the ABC that the Indian government has been contacted to “discuss avenues of restitution”. It is probably hoping that the whole affair goes away and that Indian laziness prevails.

The other insensible strategy the NGA is its attempt to bring their investment back via the now incarcerated Kapoor.  The measure is unprecedented.  The lawsuit claims that Kapoor, his gallery and Freedman “fraudulently induced the NGA to acquire the Shiva by making misrepresentations and false assurances concerning the history of the Shiva.”  Kapoor did furnish his sold items with money-back guarantees in the event that any of the antiquities be found as fakes or of false provenance.

The strategy itself is doomed to fail, given the fact that Kapoor’s entire shop inventory seems to have been stolen.  Contracts tend to be dead letters in such cases.  And other museums and private collectors found with such stolen goods, yet guaranteed by warranty, have recently been willing to surrender the looted items without too much fuss (Chasing Aphrodite, Feb 11).  Not, it seems, the NGA.

University of Sydney Law criminologist Duncan Chappell’s observation is that the NGA would best give up the statue and cut its losses.  “The Gallery will recover virtually nothing and will also have to invest very substantial legal funds in pursuing this claim in the United States.”

The NGA manager Ron Radford has also failed to reveal what the museum’s approach will be with the other 13 items in the gallery obtained from the Kapoor ring.  Silence, he might well hope, will kill interest in the recovery process.  It has, after all, worked in the past.

The perennial principle in the antiquities market, notably one on this scale, is that of caveat emptor.  The NGA was simply not careful enough, despite claiming that it had done a “thorough due diligence process”.  Having found egg on its face, its retaliation has been amateurish and revealing.  It will be fitting for them to own up sooner rather than later, and salvage what little reputation they have left on that front.  The dance between the plundering trafficker and the careless yet complicit purchaser, may not work this time.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com