Museum reveals list of 30 items from disgraced New York gallery

A stone sculpture of Nandi, the bull mount of the Hindu god Shiva, bought for US$55,250, remains on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum's South Asia gallery. It is among the 30 items acquired by the museum from Art of the Past gallery in New Yo
A stone sculpture of Nandi, the bull mount of the Hindu god Shiva, bought for US$55,250, remains on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum's South Asia gallery. It is among the 30 items acquired by the museum from Art of the Past gallery in New York, which is accused of trafficking in millions of dollars' worth of stolen artefacts.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The Asian Civilisations Museum has lifted the veil on the full list of 30 works of art it acquired from a disgraced New York gallery accused of trafficking in millions of dollars' worth of stolen artefacts.

The museum released the list and price of each item exclusively to The Straits Times, in response to queries following the recent publication online of a partial inventory of the artefacts.

It was published on the blog, Chasing Aphrodite, written by former Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch who tracks illicit antiquities in museums around the world.

The 30 artefacts, dating from the third to 19th century, include sculptures, paintings, architectural fragments, ancient rattles and manuscripts. They range in price from US$3,500 (S$4,400) to US$650,000 each.

The total value of the acquisitions, bought between 1997 and 2010 from Art of the Past gallery, is $1,328,250.

Some of the items were previously exhibited and one of the artefacts, a stone sculpture of Nandi, the bull mount of the Hindu god Shiva, bought for US$55,250, remains on display at the museum's South Asia gallery.

The list also includes no fewer than four gouache and gold on paper paintings from 1820 that depict scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana and were priced between US$50,000 and US$75,000.

The museum had earlier confirmed it had two of the artefacts, an 11th-century bronze sculpture of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari and a late 18th-century gilded Virgin Mary and Christ altar from Goa, India, after they were named in ongoing court cases in the United States as antiquities that may have been sold illicitly by Art of the Past.

The gallery owner and art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, was detained by officials in Germany in 2011 and extradited to India where he stands trial for smuggling 18 idols from a temple in Tamil Nadu.

The rest of the 28 artefacts in the museum's collection, however, have not been cited in any court cases.

A museum spokesman confirmed that the artefacts and prices listed on the blog, Chasing Aphrodite, are accurate, except for one item.

The spokesman said: "The writer mentioned three 'watercolours on gold paper' paintings which were invoiced at US$37,500. If assuming the writer is referring to the same paintings we have, we bought two of these paintings at US$30,000."

Mr Felch, who also co-authored the book Chasing Aphrodite with Mr Ralph Frammolino about the Getty Museum's dealings in illicit antiquities, said in an e-mail interview that the information on the blog is based on the gallery's business records, obtained from a confidential source in the US with access to the documents. He also confirmed the authenticity of the records independently through other sources.

The museum's spokesman said the purchases followed its acquisition procedures "strictly", and "all possible checks" were made on the origin and legitimacy of the artefacts.

"At the point of purchase, the museum believed that the objects were legally and ethically acquired."

She said the American and Indian authorities have not approached the museum with any request for information or assistance in their investigations, although it is ready to render help.

"We will also take all necessary steps, in accordance with international laws and practice, to return any objects proven to be stolen or looted."

lijie@sph.com.sg

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