Manhattan’s D.A. Returns 248 Antiquities to India That Were Caught Up in the Investigation of Disgraced Dealer Subhash Kapoor

It is the largest group of historical objects to be returned to the country.

Pictured (from left to right): A bronze Nandikesvara, a bronze Shiva Nataraja, and a bronze Kankalamurti. Image via District Attorney New York.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. announced the return of 248 antiquities to India yesterday (October 28) during a repatriation ceremony attended by India’s consul general Randhir Jaiswal, and U.S. Homeland Security special agent Erik Rosenblatt. It is the largest transfer to date of antiquities to the country.

The return of the objects, which have an estimated value of $15 million, is the latest in a wave of recent repatriations by authorities in the U.S. and Europe, as well as by individual cultural institutions. Several of the decisions to return come after years of scrutiny, mounting pressure, and new discoveries that have bolstered claims of rightful ownership on the part of the origin countries. Vance said that in New York alone, more than 500 objects have been returned to 12 countries since August 2020.

Items returned yesterday included ten pieces seized from Matreiya, the former gallery of known trafficker Nayef Homsi, who was convicted in 2015, and a bronze Shiva Nataraja, circa 12th century and valued at $4 million, that was stolen from a temple in the 1960s and smuggled into New York before being sold by dealer Doris Wiener, whose daughter, Nancy Wiener, was convicted earlier this year.

However, the majority of the most recent return—235 pieces—were seized as part of the investigation of disgraced dealer Subhash Kapoor. For years, the antiquities trafficking unit of the district attorney’s office, working with HSI officials, investigated Kapoor and his co-conspirators for illegal looting, exportation, and sale of ancient art from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries. Kapoor and others smuggled looted antiquities into New York and sold the pieces through his Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past.

Over the span of nine years, from 2011 to 2020, the two departments recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and others. The total estimated value is in excess of $143 million.

Vance’s office first issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in 2012. In October 2019, the dealer and seven co-defendants were indicted for conspiracy to traffic stolen antiquities. In July 2020, the district attorney’s office filed extradition paperwork for Kapoor and the others. Two have since been convicted: Richard Salmon in October 2020 and Neil Perry Smith earlier this year. Previously, three others were also convicted: Selina Mohamed (2013), Aaron Freedman (2013), and Sushma Sareen (2014).

The district attorney’s office confirmed that Kapoor is being held in the Trichy Prison in India, where he is still on trial for theft and illegal export of antique idols; details on his extradition are yet to be decided.  In the U.S., he faces multiple Class B felonies, which mandate state prison custody. Freedman is awaiting sentencing on November 8, and Smith is scheduled to be sentenced January 27, 2022.

“This extraordinary assemblage of artifacts, recovered from five different criminal investigations over the past decade, embodies the timeless cultural and cosmic bridge between ancient and modern-day India,” said Vance in a statement. The latest return of property “serves as a potent reminder that individuals who maraud sacred temples in pursuit of individual profit are committing crimes not only against a country’s heritage but also its present and future,” he added. 

Jaiswal thanked the district attorney’s office for the return, saying: “We look forward to our continued engagement to strengthen cultural ties between India and the United States.”

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