Two weeks ago, federal authorities broke open a Manhattan storage unit to discover $20 million worth of allegedly looted ancient bronze and sandstone statues. The cache of suspicious treasure belongs to Subhash Kapoor, an Indian-born, New York-based art dealer who has sold and donated hundreds of Indian antiquities to museums around the world through his now-defunct Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past. The news has sent a chill through museums worldwide.
At least 230 objects have been traced from Kapoor to prominent museums across the globe, including the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, according to a tally on the website Chasing Aphrodite, which specializes in tracking looted antiquities. Several institutions have more than a dozen works from Kapoor. According to multiple reports, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has 81, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has 62, the Toledo Museum of Art, 44, and the National Gallery of Art in Australia, 21…
And what of Kapoor himself? The disgraced dealer is currently facing charges in India for allegedly masterminding a network of temple looters. United States authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest. His lawyer Christopher Kane told the New York Post that he “has no reason to think” Kapoor is not a “legitimate businessman.”
This kind of thing is not the exception to the rule that the museum industry would have you think. Studies have repeatedly shown that 90% of the antiquities passing through the auction houses — the most public portion of the market — lack documentation to establish that they were excavated and exported in compliance with country of origin laws. If 90% of the antiquities traded on public portion of the market are unprovenanced, what would that percentage be for the private portion of the market, from where museums most often buy? As far as the art industry has come, museums still routinely purchase antiquities without appropriate provenance (documentation showing that the origin of a piece is legitimate). The standard is still not to buy pieces that are known to be illicit, but turning a blind eye is all too common, enabling unscrupulous dealers and traffickers to continue operating at an incredible profit.
People like Kapoor (as he’s charged, making no comment on his likely guilt) are not mere exceptions and rarities. There is a vast network out there for trading in illicit antiquities, and it is the licit market that serves as a smokescreen for and legitimizer of those transactions.
Read the full article on the recent bust: Major Museums Reel as the Extent of Subhash Kapoor’s Alleged Smuggling Ring Is Uncovered.