Feds Seize Ancient Sculpture Headed to East Coast Auction House for Asia Week

Feds have been tracking antiquities for eight years under Operation Hidden Idol.

A second-century Boddhisattva head seized by authorities.<br>Photo: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A second-century Boddhisattva head seized by authorities.
Photo: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Asia Week, which runs March 10 through today, sees dozens of New York dealers and auction houses offering countless antiquities. That number is one less today, as federal agents have taken possession of an ancient sculpture they say is worth several hundred thousand dollars and was to be on offer this week.

The seizure was announced in a press release from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which jointly have been tracking antiquities smuggling for the last eight years under the auspices of what they refer to as Operation Hidden Idol. It states that it was heading towards an “East Coast auction house,” and was “slated to be auctioned during ‘Asia Week New York,'” but doesn’t specify further.

It comes on the heels of authorities’ seizure of two Indian artifacts that were slated to be auctioned at Christie’s New York, allegedly stolen by former New York dealer Subhash Kapoor.

Operation Hidden Idol has netted other antiquities in the past, some of which had already made their way into museum collection, including seven artifacts from the Honolulu Museum of Art that, authorities maintain, Kapoor looted from India. A New York dealer, the Toledo Museum of Art, and Massachusetts’ Peabody Essex Museum are among those that have also returned looted goods connected to Kapoor. In the latest press release, Kapoor is not mentioned.

Representatives of the ICE and HSI say the bodhisattva head was created by the Gandhara civilization; they think it was looted from an area that is now part of Pakistan. They point out that objects are smuggled through ports among high volumes of antiquities, making it difficult for customs agents to notice illegal ones.

The shipping documents contained a number of false statements, say officials, and the seizure will result in further scrutiny for those behind the subterfuge.

To date, Operation Hidden Idol has recovered more than 2,500 artifacts with estimated cumulative value of $100,000,000, according to authorities.

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