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Artifacts seized from US art dealer among 307 treasures returned to India

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The US has returned 307 looted treasures to India as part of a 15-year investigation into international trafficking networks, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced Monday.

More than three-quarters of the repatriated items, which have an estimated value of over $4 million, are linked to the disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial for smuggling offenses in India.

According to US prosecutors, Kapoor and his co-conspirators trafficked thousands of artifacts plundered from temples, ruins and archaeological sites. The looting ring then falsified authentication documents and sold the antiquities through the dealer’s New York gallery, Art of the Past.

In 2011, the Indian American dealer was arrested in Germany and sent to face charges in India. The next year, the US issued him with an arrest warrant on counts including grand larceny, conspiracy, scheme to defraud and criminal possession of stolen property.

In an investigation dubbed “Operation Hidden Idol,” US authorities seized more than 2,500 artifacts — worth an estimated $143 million — with links to Kapoor. He was indicted in 2019, and officials have since applied to have him extradited after his trial concludes.

Of the 307 artifacts handed back at Monday’s ceremony, which was held at the Indian Consulate in New York, some 235 were seized as part of investigations into Kapoor.

The “Arch Parikara” which dates to the 12th or 13th centuries. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery

Among them is an elaborately carved marble archway, called the “Arch Parikara,” which dates to the 12th or 13th centuries and is worth an estimated $85,000. Investigators say Kapoor had seen photographs of the arch, alongside images of various treasures “lying in the grass or on the ground,” and had helped smuggle it out of India to the US in 2002.

He then allegedly laundered the artifact into a private collection. The arch was later donated to the Yale University Art Gallery, which said in March that it had delivered items from its collections to investigators after being “presented with information indicating that … (they) were stolen from their countries of origin.”

A ‘worldwide fraud’

Kapoor’s trial in India’s Tamil Nadu state began last year, with the dealer now having already served over a decade in jail. Though he pleaded not guilty, and is still awaiting a verdict, governments and art institutions have already returned hundreds of items linked to his gallery to their countries of origin.

In 2016 the US repatriated more than 200 Indian artifacts, part of a shipment imported by Kapoor and valued at more than $100 million, including religious statues, bronzes and terracotta pieces. Earlier this year, the DA’s office returned 24 looted treasures to Cambodia. Kapoor also stands accused of handling items plundered from countries across Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.
The National Gallery of Australia has meanwhile returned items obtained from Kapoor on several occasions, most recently in 2021 when it repatriated more than a dozen items purchased directly from his gallery. At the time, the museum’s director, Nick Mitzevich, told CNN that Kapoor had “initiated a worldwide fraud that affected many galleries around the world.”
Seven years earlier, Australia’s then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, oversaw the return of two 900-year-old artworks to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
An image provided by the Manhattan District Attorney's office showing one of artifacts repatriated to India Monday' ceremony.

An image provided by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office showing one of artifacts repatriated to India Monday’ ceremony. Credit: Manhattan DA’s office.

Kapoor declined CNN’s request for comment via his New York-based lawyer Georges Lederman, who said he expects a verdict from the Indian court in the coming weeks. Speaking to CNN last year, Lederman had said that Kapoor intends to contest US charges on double jeopardy grounds, as “the underlying conduct he is being charged for in New York is the same for which he has already served in India.”

Also among the items returned on Monday were five artifacts linked to Nancy Wiener, who last year pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property. Another one of the items was seized during investigations into the New York art dealer Nayef Homsi, while the remaining 66 were linked to various smaller trafficking networks.

In a press statement, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. said he was “proud” to return the artifacts “to the people of India,” adding: “These antiquities were stolen by multiple complex and sophisticated trafficking rings — the leaders of which showed no regard for the cultural or historical significance of these objects.”

The DA office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, a task force comprising lawyers, investigators and art experts, has overseen the return of nearly 2,200 antiquities since its formation in December 2017. So far, 22 countries have benefited from repatriations worth an estimated $160 million, including — in the last year alone — Egypt, Italy, Greece and Israel.
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