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$100M of Ancient Art in Legal Limbo After Dealer Arrested

By Gwynne Hogan | April 15, 2015 11:46am
 The thousands of objects in the city's custody are worth more than $100 million.
The thousands of objects in the city's custody are worth more than $100 million.
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MANHATTAN — Thousands of historic artifacts allegedly stolen from countries like Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are in legal limbo after a suspected art smuggler was arrested.

The city is suing for ownership of the objects so it can begin the process of finding their rightful owners, according to a civil complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

The complaint requests that Subhash Kapoor surrender ownership of 2,622 objects taken during raids of his Madison Avenue gallery and a handful of storage spaces across the city in 2012 and 2014.

The objects, including historic busts, statues, terracotta figurines, tapestries and masks, are worth more than $107 million, court documents show.

Kapoor, who has legal ownership of the objects, is currently awaiting trial in India. He was arrested in 2011 in Germany and later extradited to India following an extensive international investigation into his deals with museums and collectors across the globe.

In the U.S., an investigation began after the Indian Consulate contacted Homeland Security in 2007. The consulate suspected Kapoor was smuggling Indian antiquities into New York.

Kapoor owned and operated a gallery on Madison Avenue and 89th Street called Art of the Past between 1995 and 2012, the civil complaint states.

Federal investigators said the gallery served as a hub for illegal imports and that the artifacts filtered into museum collections across the country. People who worked for Kapoor stole objects from temples and other sacred sites, violating laws in those countries, the complaint states.

During one raid, Homeland Security confiscated objects worth millions of dollars that they said were stolen from temples in the Tamil Nadu region of India and listed in the Interpol Stolen Works of Art Database. 

In 2013, Kapoor’s accomplice Aaron Freedman, the gallery’s manager, pleaded guilty to five felony charges, including criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. Freedman is currently awaiting sentencing, court records show.

Prosecutors were also reportedly pressing charges against Kapoor’s sister, Sushma Sareen, who they say hid four bronze statues of Hindu deities worth $14.5 million so investigators wouldn’t find them.

Following the investigations, authorities asked museums across the country to take stock of the objects they’d obtained from Kapoor and decide whether or not they were illegally smuggled into the country.

Several museums across the country, including ones in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Ohio, have begun to return objects to the countries they were stolen from, the New York Times reported.

Last fall, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned a $5 million statue of a Shiva to Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi that the National Gallery of Australia had purchased from Kapoor.

Kapoor is currently being sued by the National Gallery of Australia in New York Supreme Court for the value of that statue and legal fees. 

A spokeswoman for the Manhattan's District Attorney said her office also hopes to return artifacts to their rightful owners, but legally needs to take possession of them first.

Lawyers for Freedman and Sareen could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kapoor's lawyer Kenneth Kaplan declined to comment on the lawsuit.