Artworks seized at New York Asia Week

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by Kate Fitz Gibbon

April 7, 2016 – Although many art dealers reported strong sales and brisk traffic, Asia Week New York 2016 will not be remembered for the extraordinary artworks displayed or the special exhibitions and social events at New York museums. Instead, an orchestrated series of highly publicized seizures of south Asian artworks by New York prosecutors and Homeland Security Investigations is likely to raise questions about the continuing viability of the New York fair as an international venue.

As the first seizure of diligently-vetted artworks from auction house Christie’s made clear, the lack of available documentation of items illicitly removed from India by Subhash Kapoor (and in that nine-year-long case, documentation deliberately withheld by authorities) can result in harmful publicity. In an unrelated prosecution involving a Buddhapadma statue from Pakistan, the seizure demonstrated how unprecedented applications of U.S. law to violations of foreign ownership and export laws can affect artifacts that were removed from source countries more than thirty years before.

On March 16, Homeland Security Officers were photographed rolling an ostensibly ancient white marble sculpture down East 67th St. on a dolly. The statue was being shown in rented space in a NY gallery by Leonardo Vigorelli, who owns the Dalton Somaré art gallery in Milan, Italy. Asia Week 2016 Chairman, Lark Mason, told the NY Times that Vigorelli had properly imported the statue and asked why authorities did not first contact the gallerist about the piece. Vigorelli is also said to have offered the sculpture for $50,000, not the $450,000 value stated in the search warrant.

On March 17, Homeland Security officers removed three objects and business records from the Nancy Wiener Gallery on East 74th Street. The seized items were a limestone sculpture of Hindu gods, a Kushan period stone relief and a bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia, as well as business records.

In another highly publicized Asia Week seizure, an ostensibly 2nd Century Bodhisattva schist head said to be from Pakistan or Afghanistan and destined for sale at an unspecified auction house was seized at a U.S. port on entry, according to a press release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The object, which appears to be of questionable antiquity and has suspiciously extensive gilding across face, headdress, and elaborate coiffure, was estimated by ICE to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most of the items seized over the last two weeks were handled or appear among the files of one man, Subhash Kapoor, who is the subject of a lengthy U.S. investigation. On March 18, Chasing Aphrodite reported that a photograph of one of the statutes in the Lahiri collection had been found in a file seized from Kapoor and labeled with the name of “alleged Indian smuggler named Ranjeet Kanwat.” Vijay Kumar, an Indian art blogger in Singapore eventually connected a photo of one of the Lahiri sculptures to a London gallery exhibition in 2006, where they had been consigned by the collector, but law enforcement did not know to whom the items belonged. The link to the Lahiri collection was established only when the items were published in the Christie’s catalog in 2016.

Despite having provided photographs to blogger Vijay Kumar, law enforcement has never made the files public so that art dealers, collectors, and museums could perform due diligence and identify objects as potentially stolen. Law enforcement has not provided an explanation of why photographs and catalogs of allegedly stolen objects are not made available to the public but are shared with various archeological researchers (such as Mr. Kumar, or, in the case of the Medici, Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives, with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, and the associated School of Social and Political Sciences University of Glasgow).

Kapoor is known not only to have bought and sold objects circulating in various international markets but also to have purchased them in India and Pakistan and arranged for illegal export from both nations, and even to have arranged for objects to be stolen from temples and monuments. Kapoor also has a reputation in the art trade for having bought and sold a great many fakes, a claim that appears substantiated in the photographs of recently seized objects. An ESPN video featuring Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) Special Agent Brent Easter shows piles of obvious fakes behind him in Kapoor’s NY warehouse.

It may be that apoor’s storage spaces were stocked with pieces that were not saleable precisely because they were fake. Kapoor has also been charged with stealing many authentic pieces from the easiest and most helpless of victims, poor villagers in India and Tamil Nadu. Nonetheless, the dubious authenticity of several of the Kapoor-associated objects seized during Asia Week and the intentional media splash associated with the raids must raise serious questions about the qualifications of ICE’s antiquities experts, the accuracy of ICE’s information and the highly inflated value of Kapoor’s collections. It also raises questions about the issue of authenticity in the art trade, and the possible invalidity of the charge of dealing in unlawfully exported antiquities if the items are not even real, at least in the case of some of the items seized.

This news was published first on the Committee for Cultural Policy on March 30, 2016.