By Laurence Dylan
There’s no indication that Subhash Kapoor, the 64-year-old owner of Art of the Past gallery, made a fuss when he was arrested at the Frankfurt airport in October 2011. News reports of the event make no reference to a struggle. After all, mistakes like this happen all the time in the antiquities business.
“Anything can go wrong with anybody,” said Kapoor’s brother Ramesh, who, like him, is accused of smuggling a significant number of artifacts from India to sell in New York. Though Ramesh never denied the charges brought against his brother (and wouldn’t address those brought against him personally), he pointed out that provenance is often difficult to determine when selling artifacts from other countries. “If someone ends up with something, it doesn’t mean that he did anything wrong. If a jeweler ends up with a stolen jewel, it doesn’t mean that that person is evil, or a thief himself.”
The Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue at 89th Street has an unremarkable exterior. Up and down Madison, there are all manner of antiquities shops that, far from the hot blue-chip market of Chelsea, offer more-sensible interior decoration options that upgrade a room with a taste of the exotic. You could have a Warhol—the way his pricing works, anyone can—but a one-of-a-kind Buddha lends your library an entirely different tone, and it’s easy to see the attraction there. “Come in,” you want to say to your guests, rising as you snap a leather-bound book shut. “I was just reading Kipling.”
Over the summer a paper sign on the door of Art in the Past said that the gallery was “Closed for Inventory,” an excuse that, like the best lies, had an element of truth to it. It’s quite likely that the gallery was doing a major survey of its inventory, given that its owner, as of the date of publication, is being held in Tamil Nadu, India, awaiting trial for smuggling charges. Among other accusations, Subhash Kapoor faces charges that he helped illegally export 18 idols from that state, worth a combined $11 million. One of the major pieces was a bronze sculpture, depicting Uma Parvati, valued at nearly $2.5 million, and recently seized by the U.S. government for the trial.
And this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Prosecutors expect to question Kapoor about a variety of other objects. Just this past July federal customs agents raided his four Manhattan storage facilities containing some $20 million in Indian artifacts, some of them, according to photos in the New York Post, as large as a standing man. With characteristic air, the paper declared that the treasure trove of objects “would make Indiana Jones jealous.” Kapoor is accused of using his daughter and his brother Ramesh—who owns his own gallery in the city, Kapoor Gallery—to help him smuggle artifacts, and given that Mr. Kapoor opened Art of the Past in 1974, it’s quite possible that the charges may go very wide indeed.
Kapoor was, until he was arrested, a seemingly upstanding citizen who worked with countless museums and enjoyed a reputation for high-quality works. “I certainly never heard anything derogatory about his reputation,” said Eleanor Abraham, who owns an eponymous gallery that deals in antiquities from the same region. It’s difficult to know the extent of Kapoor’s business, but it’s quite possible that his wares bedeck the desks and bookshelves of your closest friend. Depending on his record-keeping, Interpol may never even know. Welcome to the curious world of antiquities dealing, where the only thing more secretive than the origins of your material are the names of your clients.
The nature of art dealing relies upon finding both supply and demand where they are limited on both sides, which is why the successful dealers are able to add a high premium to their prices. This is true of contemporary art collecting as well, but the field of antiquities is unique in that there are added difficulties in the question of provenance. It’s not early enough for you to simply have an object; one must also be able to prove that it was taken from a country legally.
The problem with dealing in antiquities is that most clients will judge you by the standard set by the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum, whose collections were mainly acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries, not periods of overwhelming cultural sensitivity when it comes to far-flung lands. During the 1920s, when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut, it was common to simply divvy the loot from a dig after it finished, two big piles: one for the workers, and one for the foreign archaeologists.
“Everybody knew all of these lovely Indian sculptures don’t come from Malibu Beach or Indiana,” Thomas Hoving, the Met’s director from 1967 to 1977, once told the New Yorker. “But people were willing to look the other way.” Modern antiquities laws vary from country to country. It’s illegal to own any artifact from Egypt discovered after 1983, following a law passed that year. Turkey passed a similar law in 1906. It’s safe to say, however, that no country would condone what Kapoor is accused of.
The Times of India alleges that Kapoor worked with Sanjeevi Asokan, described as “a notorious idol thief ” and with him hired two men referenced only by single names, Rathinam and Kaliyaperumal, to steal the goods for him, straight out of the temples of Tamil Nadu. Kapoor is also accused of smuggling Buddhist artifacts out of Afghanistan, and other antiques out of Pakistan. (The Department of Homeland Security and Mr. Kapoor’s lawyer did not return requests for comment for this story.)
“The gallery has sold to some of the most celebrated public and private collections in the world,” read a boastful section of the now offline Art of the Past website. “These include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; The Art Institute, Chicago; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.”
“It is my way of giving back to the field,” Kapoor told Apollo magazine, in explaining why he was so prolific in his work with museums. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt business to have the endorsement of all those museums listed above on your website. The Homeland Security press release on the seizure of Kapoor’s storage facilities makes no bones about it: “Pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums.” Through acquisitions and gifts, some 240 items now rest in the museums listed above. Following their donation the year prior, the Met put on a show of these drawings titled “Living Line: Selected Indian Drawings From the Subhash Kapoor Gift” in 2009. ( The other major crime in antiquities dealing is, of course, forgery and, amusingly, five of Kapoor’s donations to the museum were in fact forgeries. But they were donated as forgeries, for the museum’s study center, so that they can better judge exactly how forgeries are produced.)
Most museums have taken an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to the items in their collection that originated from Kapoor. And, extending the same courtesy to Kapoor, it’s possible that if he was dealing in items that had been incorrectly removed from their countries of origin, he may not have been properly informed. This is a hazard of the business in dealing in antiquities, one that has led some in the business to theorize that the new market will become two-tiered: one for objects with stellar provenance, which would cost more, and another for items where the provenance is a bit sketchier.
“Sotheby’s has a piece with Homeland Security,” Ramish Kapoor added, pointing out that the item in question, a statue whose ownership is disputed by the Cambodian government, has been custody of the department for over a year. “Are they making a museum over there or what?” A number of countries have recently become more aggressive in their attempts to defend artifacts they’ve identified as misappropriated. To return to the two countries mentioned before, Egypt has, in the wake of its revolution, completely re-organized its Supreme Council of Antiquities in a way that may promise to be less friendly to the West. Turkey, for its part, has banned loans to many major museums, the Met and the British Museum among them, until certain disputed items are repatriated.
Healing the wounds of imperialism is never pretty. And neither are Kapoor’s alleged crimes. The case has already taken many twists and turns and it has only just begun. If you walk into a friend’s house sometime in the near future and a beautiful Hindi statue that used to tie the room together no longer rests on his bookshelf, do yourself a favor and try not to ask any questions about it.
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