As the mercury fell in New York City, a curator from Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum stepped off the sidewalk in the city's posh Upper East Side neighbourhood and into the gallery, Art of the Past, in Madison Avenue .
Like other museum officials around the world who visit the gallery specialising in South Asian antiquities, the curator was on a mission: to look for works of art that could be added to the museum's trove.
The gallery, a few blocks from the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art, was run by the respected dealer Subhash Kapoor. His family has been in the art business for decades and he regularly published illustrated catalogues that were known for their scholarly descriptions of the gallery's artefacts that were on sale.
That visit in 2005 by the curator was neither the first for the Asian Civilisations Museum nor would it be the last. It had been acquiring items from Mr Kapoor since 1997 and, by 2010, it had bought a total of 30 artefacts from the New York gallery.
In the museum's dealings with the India-born United States-based dealer, there was no sign that the gallery's operations were not above board. Procedural checks by the museum on its previous acquisitions had offered no reason for suspicion.
On that particular visit, the curator had spied a delicately carved bronze statue of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari on display. It had the perfect pedigree for the museum collection, which reflects the heritage cultures of Singaporeans. The statue dates from the 11th-century Chola civilisation in south India, which is the homeland of many Indian immigrants to South-east Asia, including Singapore.
The museum paid $650,000 for the statue. Nine years later, the statue and an 18th-century gilded Virgin Mary and Christ altar from Goa, India, bought for $348,000 in 2009, have been named in lawsuits brought against associates of the gallery in the US, including its manager Aaron Freedman.
The gallery is accused of trafficking in millions of dollars' worth of illicit artefacts. When the Asian Civilisations Museum did its checks in 2006, there was nothing in the year-long evaluation process to suggest that the Uma statue was looted from Tamil Nadu in India.
The proposal to acquire the statue was first discussed among the museum's curators, then vetted and approved by the chief curator, museum director and the acquisitions committee comprising members of the museum's advisory board and external experts. The final nod came from the chief executive of the National Heritage Board, which oversees the museum.
The museum ran checks through The Art Loss Register, one of the world's largest private database of lost and stolen art and antiques and the statue did not pop up in the search. The museum requested records of ownership to validate the sculpture and was provided bills of sales and export documents.
The papers showed that the work was in the private collection of an individual in the 1960s before it was sold to a dealer and then to another private collector before ending up with Art of the Past. The museum tried to trace the most recent owner, but the search led to a dead end with no results.
Museum director Alan Chong, 52, who joined the institution in 2010, tells Life!: "There was very strong indication that the objects we acquired were completely legitimate."
Following the court cases, the Asian Civilisations Museum is not the only museum to be alerted to the possibility that it might have bought illicitly acquired artefacts. An 11th-century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance, acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 for US$5 million, was cited in legal documents as having been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu in 2007.
A 12th-century stone sculpture of Ardhanarishvara, acquired by Australia's Art Gallery of New South Wales for US$300,000, is also believed to have been looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu.
Other institutional collections named in the cases include the Peabody Essex Museum, which dates to 1799 and is one of the oldest museums in the US, as well as the University of Florida's Harn Museum.
The extent of Art of the Past's trade in illicit artefacts highlights the challenges faced by museums in ensuring that the artefacts they acquire are legitimate. Experts whom Life! interviewed, including art dealers and lawyers specialising in cultural property, emphasise the need for independent verification because a dealer may fabricate the origin of a work.
Standard checks include lodging an inquiry with an art loss register that tracks works which have been stolen or looted. Published catalogues, auction sales records, museum archives and export permits can also help establish the ownership history of a work.
But Mr Pieter Hoogendijk, 65, president of the International Confederation of Art and Antique Dealers' Associations, which represents 5,000 dealers from 32 associations worldwide, says: "It is often difficult, if not impossible, to trace successive ownership of an artefact from the point of creation to the present day, given the lack of records available."
Ms Cai Yunci, 31, a doctorate candidate pursuing South-east Asian museology at the University College London's Institute of Archaeology, says that if all else fails, museums can seek a sworn statement, prepared by a lawyer, to confirm the account of an object's origin from the seller or donor.
She says museums should also examine the object. Fresh-looking soil on the object, for example, may mean that it was recently excavated and possibly stolen.
Such checks, though, can be taxing on a museum's resources.
Mr Hoogendijk says these investigations can cost from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the search. And even with the additional information sourced, some of the documents could be forged.
Mr Kevin Tan, 52, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Singapore, says: "The problem with art loss register checks is that it depends very much on what was reported. Some museums or collectors or even states will not report the theft or loss of items for fear of embarrassment. If nothing is reported, there is no way an institution can verify if it is a stolen item."
Mr Chong of the Asian Civilisations Museum stresses that the museum, as a member of the International Council of Museums, abides by the council's strict conventions and takes a strong stand against acquiring stolen or illicit artefacts.
He says: "I want to dispel the notion that we lack procedures and that we are cowboys out there just doing things. We are not.
"Our procedures are actually very robust. We could not find a flaw or error in our procedures in 2006 and 2009."
He adds that the museum conducted a fresh round of checks in 2011 with The Art Loss Register on the origin of all the artefacts it acquired from Mr Kapoor.
The re-investigation was spurred by a civil lawsuit in Singapore between Mr Kapoor and his former lover, Ms Paramaspry Punusamy, a Singaporean art dealer who contended that she had part ownership of some of the gallery's artefacts, including items that were sold to the museum. Those checks turned up nothing, says Mr Chong.
With the commencement of US court cases against Art of the Past associates, the museum has called in an outside legal counsel to examine everything again.
He stresses, however, that neither the museum nor the National Heritage Board has received any request for information on the artefacts in question from the US courts or the Indian government. This move is often the first step in facilitating an official request for the repatriation of a stolen artefact.
He adds that the museum's lawyers have not found any legal filings against Mr Kapoor, who is now held in India waiting trial, or the New York gallery, so there are no grounds for it to take any legal action, although it is monitoring the situation closely.
He says: "We will cooperate with the Indian and American governments when that time comes and if it is proven that these are illegally acquired art. We will do the right thing, but we do need to follow procedures.
"We have acquired something in good faith on behalf of the Singaporean people and we are not in a position to simply hand it back without proof."
He adds that if the museum had to repatriate the items, it would sue the New York gallery and dealer for compensation.
Last Thursday, the National Gallery of Australia filed documents in the Supreme Court of New York against Mr Kapoor in relation to the museum's purchase of the Shiva as Lord of the Dance bronze sculpture from Art of the Past.
The Art Loss Register chairman Julian Radcliffe, 65, says that when an artefact or work of art sold is proven to be fake or illegally obtained, the dealer who supplied the item would normally be liable to repay the buyer the purchase price and all other costs. But it may be difficult to enforce this because the dealer could have been declared bankrupt.
Assistant Professor Jack Lee, 43, of the Singapore Management University's School of Law, says museums with the option of seeking legal redress in such situations should also consider if it is worth suing the fraudster because the museum will have to pay its solicitors' fees. If the legal proceedings occur overseas, extra costs will be incurred.
Museums may also make insurance claims against the loss of artefacts due for repatriation to their rightful owner.
Mr David Scully, 57, vice-president and senior underwriter for the Asia Pacific region of the XL Insurance company, says: "If a museum is able to demonstrate that it has a strong risk mitigation programme, whereby it diligently researches each object before purchase, it may be possible for specialist art insurers to offer limited indemnity coverage for purchases."
The coverage, however, varies with each policy, although it is possible for a policy to cover legal and other fees.
Art consultant Lindy Poh, 44, suggests that there may also be alternatives to repatriation, even if an artefact is found to have been illegally removed.
She says: "Sometimes, the lawful owners of the artefacts do not have the resources to build climate-controlled environments, to conserve and restore old artefacts, to present exhibitions that attract large visitorships, or to fund scholarship on these artefacts.
"In this context, I would say that it should be an option for the museum to discuss having the artefacts stay on in a loan arrangement and perhaps to present these works jointly in public exhibitions or publications."
Asked about the damage to the reputation of museums found to have acquired looted artefacts, Mr Tan of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Singapore, says: "If they are transparent and explain their processes, the public will not blame the museum. In the case of Art of the Past, it appears that a number of other major museums were also snooked so... the museums were not particularly gullible or naive."
Museum director Mr Chong says reviews of its acquisitions process are ongoing and in its probe thus far, "we really think we have covered all the bases".
"I do not foresee that this event will call for a whole-scale review of our processes."
He adds: "I think, to a certain extent, we have been a victim like other museums have been victims, of what appears to be a fraud. Clearly, Mr Subhash Kapoor has been deceptive and in such a way that no one could have detected."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 11, 2014
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