In the 1891 story A Case of Identity, Sherlock Holmes cracked another mystery in his careful examination of evidence emanating from a typewriter. Now, over 120 years later, investigators in New York have relied on similar skills to expose one of the largest art looting conspiracies of all time. It was at the office of Art of The Past (AOP) on Madison Avenue in New York, with the execution of search warrants between 2012 and 2018, that the case against Subhash Kapoor was built up. Tipped off by an informant, officers discovered a log book with lists of artefacts, computer files with photographic evidence of looted artefacts and an old typewriter with blank letterheads. Perhaps the strangest item of all, the typewriter was allegedly used to forge invoices from galleries around the world to falsify provenance for looted artefacts. It was the discovery of these items which led the Criminal Court of the City of New York to issue felony arrest warrants against Subhash Kapoor and seven others on 11 July this year.
Kapoor owned AOP. It is alleged that he used this business to buy, smuggle, launder and sell tens of millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities, stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand.
Along with his co-accused, Kapoor was charged with conspiracy, relating to the acquisition of stolen antiquities, falsifying their provenance, marketing them as legal and selling them for profit. A key component of the conspiracy is said to be that a determined effort was made to create false provenances for the antiquities and this involved ensuring that the given date of their excavation pre-dated any laws preventing their removal. The items would be advertised by AOP and sold to dealers, collectors and museums around the world.
Kapoor and his co-accused are charged with conspiracy, grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and schemes to defraud. Sanjeeve Asokan, Dean Dayal, Rayed Kanwar, Aditya Prakash and Vallabh Prakash are alleged to have supplied Kapoor with stolen antiquities from India worth millions of dollars. These included granite, bronze, wooden and limestone sculptures stolen from temples and archaeological sites in India. The network spread to Europe and the USA where Neil Smith in London and Richard Salmon in New York are alleged to have been involved in the cleaning and repairing of items after their illegal excavation, in order to assist in falsifying their provenance.
This investigation led to the seizure of over 2,600 antiquities, valued at over $107 million. The charges relate to 72 stolen antiquities possessed by Kapoor between 1986 – 2016: 33 were seized but another 39 are still missing. The total value is believed to exceed $145 million.
Kapoor was arrested on an Interpol warrant in Germany in 2011 and is currently in custody in India awaiting trial on separate charges. The information in the arrest warrants reflects the scale of this global investigation which spans years as well as addressing conduct over three decades. It is perhaps reflective of a determined effort to tackle the international issue of looting of antiquities. In areas of conflict, humanitarian crises rightly make headlines and require relief. However there is also a serious need to protect vulnerable sites of antiquities and prevent this type of criminality at source.
Perhaps most importantly, there will be a great impact on museums and galleries in possession of artefacts obtained from Kapoor and AOP. Countries are likely to seek the return of their antiquities, if identified, as indeed had occurred in 2014 when Australia returned to India a Shiva Nataraja sculpture sold to the National Gallery of Australia by AOP. Whether evidence is obtained using methods applied by Sherlock Holmes or the latest digital and forensic technology, this ongoing saga will undoubtedly be fascinating to follow.