Asian Civilisations Museum checks items from disgraced art dealer

Among ACM's purchases from Subhash Kapoor's gallery is an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari. Kapoor is accused of smuggling more than US$100 million (S$126 million) in antiquities. -- PHOTOS: ACM, ST FILE
Among ACM's purchases from Subhash Kapoor's gallery is an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari. Kapoor is accused of smuggling more than US$100 million (S$126 million) in antiquities. -- PHOTOS: ACM, ST FILE
Among ACM's purchases from Subhash Kapoor's gallery is an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari. Kapoor is accused of smuggling more than US$100 million (S$126 million) in antiquities. -- PHOTOS: ACM, ST FILE
Among ACM's purchases from Subhash Kapoor's gallery is an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari. Kapoor is accused of smuggling more than US$100 million (S$126 million) in antiquities. -- PHOTOS: ACM, ST FILE

If any of the artworks acquired from Kapoor are found to be stolen, they will be returned

Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is checking the origins of precious artworks in the national collection bought from disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The Indian-born United States- based dealer is accused of smuggling more than US$100 million (S$126 million) in antiquities from India into the US, where he ran a now-defunct gallery in New York called Art of the Past.

The museum told The Sunday Times that if any of the items it acquired from him are found to be stolen or looted, it will begin the process of returning them.

It declined to say how many items were bought from Kapoor or how much in total was paid for them. So far, there have been no claims made for any of its artefacts.

Among its purchases from Kapoor's gallery is an 11th-century bronze sculpture of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari, which was cited in a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney in New York.

The legal document stated that Kapoor and his gallery manager Aaron Freedman, 41, were involved in the sale of the bronze statue, which was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu newspaper reported.

Freedman has pleaded guilty to trafficking in stolen art and helping Kapoor sell the loot. Kapoor's case is ongoing.

The sculpture of the goddess was said to have been illicitly transported to the US, and in February 2007, sold by Kapoor to the Singapore museum for US$650,000 and shipped here. Just months after its arrival here, it went on display as one of the highlights in the museum's exhibition, Beauty In Asia: 200BCE To Today.

The lead curator of that show, Dr Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, who is now centre director of the Indian Heritage Centre, had praised the sculpture in The Straits Times as one of the museum's most highly prized artefacts, both in price and historic value. She also commented on the sculpture's intricate craftsmanship and delicate proportions.

The statue is no longer on display at the museum.

Museum director Alan Chong, 52, said: "We are following the case closely and are studying the objects we have purchased from Art of the Past."

"We are very concerned with recent developments, and will assist the authorities with all of their investigations when approached. The national museums collect ethically and will begin the process of returning any items that were stolen or looted," he added.

There have, so far, been no requests for the museum to return its Uma Parameshvari statue.

Kapoor, who was arrested in late 2011 and is in prison in India, made the news in Singapore when he went to court in 2010 to sue his former lover, Ms Paramaspry Punusamy, a Singaporean art dealer and owner of Jazmin Asian Arts, for refusing to return 15 artefacts as well as US$15,000 in sales proceeds after their break-up.

Kapoor, who is divorced, met her in 1997 at an art show in San Francisco and they had a relationship for about 10 years from 1998.

Ms Paramaspry countersued, claiming he was holding on to 28 art pieces belonging to her. In the court decision, she was ordered to return the antiques and to bear Mr Kapoor's legal costs while he had to return one antique, for which she had proof of purchase.

Mr Daniel Komala, 50, chief executive of Larasati Auctioneers, a regional auction house that specialises in Asian art and artefacts, said it is not uncommon for museums to "buy stolen goods without knowing that they are stolen goods". He said unscrupulous dealers are "even more organised than museums".

"Whatever letters of authenticity you need, they can forge it and give it to you," he said.

He added that should items in the museum's collection be found to be stolen, it can sue the gallery as recourse to recover the cost and to preserve its reputation.

"When you sue the gallery that sold you stolen goods, it proves that to the best of your knowledge, you were buying them legitimately," he said.

lijie@sph.com.sg