Ultimate temple raider?

Art dealer Subhash Kapoor is charged with smuggling of antiquities worth US$100 million

Subhash Kapoor (above) being escorted to court by police in India early this month; and the Varadharaja Perumal temple, where idols were discovered missing in 2008.
Subhash Kapoor (above) being escorted to court by police in India early this month; and the Varadharaja Perumal temple, where idols were discovered missing in 2008.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES
Subhash Kapoor being escorted to court by police in India early this month; and the Varadharaja Perumal temple (above), where idols were discovered missing in 2008.
Subhash Kapoor being escorted to court by police in India early this month; and the Varadharaja Perumal temple (above), where idols were discovered missing in 2008.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • The 30 or so guests enjoying spring rolls and white wine were gathered in a small third-floor gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Subhash Kapoor, a convivial Manhattan art dealer who had donated 58 miniature drawings of Indian aristocrats, deities and beasts.

On this spring evening in 2009, Kapoor, 60, owner of Art of the Past in Madison Avenue, stood atop the Indian art world. After 35 years in business, museums and collectors were paying seven figures for his Hindu, Buddhist and South Asian antiquities.

A 900-year-old dancing Shiva went to the National Gallery of Australia, a 1,000-year-old bronze Ganesha to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Now, he was being toasted by the Met for a gift of artworks from his homeland.

What no one in the room knew was that Kapoor was under investigation on two continents, suspected of running a US$100-million (S$137- million) art smuggling operation.

Two years earlier, Indian officials had tipped the authorities in the United States that a company in West Nyack, New York, Nimbus Import Export, was about to receive seven crates from overseas labelled "marble garden table sets".

The contents were, in fact, £3,000 of stolen antiquities, the Indians said, and Nimbus' owner was the proprietor of Art of the Past.

Today, US and Indian investigators say they have compiled an enormous dossier against Kapoor: e-mails and databases seized under search warrants; bank-transfer records and shipping forms; the testimony of former associates, including his office manager, who were arrested and have agreed to cooperate.

Much of the material has been the product of an investigation called Operation Hidden Idol. The US authorities say they have concluded that the modest and esteemed Kapoor was, in volume and value, the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in US history. He has adamantly denied doing anything illegal.

Their best evidence, they say, is an almost unimaginable 2,622 items, worth US$107.6 million, confiscated mostly from storerooms in Manhattan and Queens, and virtually all of it contraband from India.

Mr James T. Hayes Jr, who oversaw the office of Homeland Security Investigations during much of the case, called Kapoor "one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world".

"We might see an individual with a handful of pieces. What we haven't seen is someone who basically created a black-market Sotheby's."

Since 2011, when Indian officials had him arrested on charges of theft and smuggling, he has been awaiting trial in a jail cell in Chennai. When that case is resolved, prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney's office hope to extradite him to face charges that include receiving stolen property.

In April, they filed court papers asking for formal custody of his merchandise so that they can be returned to India and other nations.

Officials are also urging his unlucky clients to surrender hundreds of costly treasures they say were not his to sell. Museums in the US and abroad, including institutions in Massachusetts, Ohio, Hawaii, Singapore and Australia, are shedding rare holdings because they came from Art of the Past, which closed in 2012.

Kapoor, who started in the trade working alongside his father, rejects the allegations.

His lawyer in India, Mr S. Kingston Jerold, said his client dealt only in replicas and never exported or bought actual antiques. "They've cooked up the case; it's all fixed up. This case is fabricated for some other political purpose."

It is a hard fall for a man long lauded by the international art market.

In 2009, a prospering Kapoor told Apollo magazine that his gift to the Met - which has not been challenged as illicit - was "my way of giving back to the field". Six years later, investigators say, he will be giving back nearly everything.

For almost a millennium, priests have climbed the ruined stone steps of the Varadharaja Perumal temple, in what is now the village of Suthamalli in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and entered a moss-covered chamber where dozens of 11th-century bronze and iron idols awaited prayers.

Balakrishnan Gurukkal, the latest in that line of priests, trod those steps on April 14, 2008, to celebrate the Tamil New Year. Though the site had once been a vital place of worship, locals now favoured another temple nearby and Gurukkal had not been there for months. He reached for the rusty lock on the flimsy metal gate and found it broken.

He lit a candle and stepped inside. The idols were gone.

Within an hour, said Chelamma Kumar, who lives beside the weed-strewn temple in a thatch hut overshadowed by a white and lime-green water tower, "there was a big crowd and lots of police with sniffer dogs and all that".

The theft had occurred a bit more than a month earlier, Indian investigators said. Since that time, the artefacts had sped from Suthamalli to Chennai to Hong Kong, then on to London and New Jersey; been falsely labelled inexpensive handicrafts; and been deposited in a New York storage unit controlled by Kapoor.

Scrubbed and restored, they would soon be displayed in his gallery, often identified as objects from private collections.

No one really knows when the looting he is accused of began.

Representatives from the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police Department in Chennai, which focuses on antiquities crimes, said Kapoor was already active in 2005 when he met an associate, Sanjivi Asokan, at the five-star Taj Connemara hotel there.

Investigators say the men mapped out a straightforward scheme to rob dozens of ancient temples in Tamil Nadu that were watched by no one.

Indian prosecutors believe that men Asokan hired to commit the break-ins would even spread tales of killer bees and bat infestations to keep villagers away from the targets.

"The scale and brazenness of the thefts is truly mind-blowing," said Mr S. Vijay Kumar, a private investigator from Singapore who grew suspicious after noticing that Kapoor was selling an extraordinary number of rare Indian idols out of New York.

With the investigator's help, the Idol Wing set about matching pictures from Kapoor's catalogues with images of the statues, which had been photographed in the 1960s by French archivists from a scholarly institute in India.

They saw that the objects being offered, in many cases for millions of dollars, bore a singular resemblance to pictures of religious icons that had disappeared from Tamil Nadu and other sites in India. In 2009, the Idol Wing distributed wanted posters of the statues.

Soon, three burglars suspected of being paid by Asokan were arrested with Suthamalli statuary in their possession, police say. They implicated Asokan (who has been charged in India with theft and smuggling) and Kapoor.

After comparing notes with those of US investigators, Indian officials in October 2011 issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor, who was then in Frankfurt, Germany, for an exhibition. German officials jailed him in Cologne. In July 2012, Kapoor, a US citizen, was extradited to his homeland.

Today, the Varadharaja Perumal temple in Suthamalli is abandoned. Without its precious inheritance, the temple has seen its long fall from glory into a mossy pile of rubble accelerate. Gurukkal visits Suthamalli only on auspicious days to light small clay oil lamps in the temple's empty chamber.

When told of the idols' value on the international art market, his eyes bulged. Could it be that just one of the statues he had been visiting so casually was worth many times what he could hope to earn in a lifetime? "I don't know whether Kapoor will get punished, but they need to return the idols to us," said Gurukkal. "That's all we're asking."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Ultimate temple raider?'. Subscribe