Depending on where one begins, the unravelling saga of Subhash Chandra Kapoor and a brazen gang of alleged international idol thieves and smugglers can be traced to either February 2007 or much further back to the very Partition of India.
For, while the diligent tracking efforts by Indian authorities and their U.S. counterparts were set in motion after a suspicious New York-bound consignment was detected in Mumbai five years ago, a rapacious Parshotam Ram Kapoor, father of Subhash and Ramesh, was said to have begun plundering cultural institutions in the subcontinent even during the early years of Indian independence.
In recent weeks and months, The Hindu has exclusively obtained not only more details of Subhash Kapoor’s apparently lavish lifestyle and the impunity with which he was said to have distributed more than $20 million-worth of idols that he and his associates reportedly looted from Tamil Nadu temples. It has also obtained from sources a closer look at some of the idols seized from Kapoor’s now-notorious “Art of the Past” gallery in New York City, which was raided by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) group, on July 26. While ICE made details of some of the idols known in its initial public statement, the photographs published here (and others on Page 8) provide a first-look at some other seized idols.
The details have emerged even as two letters rogatory were reportedly sent out by the Tamil Nadu police to the U.S. authorities, seeking further details of the art objects seized by ICE.
Among these are: a bronze Nataraja idol, suspected to be from Suthamalli, Tamil Nadu; an unidentified idol of a goddess; and three idols said to be from the Gandhara-Kushan period. One Buddhist idol was said to have been marked for theft by Kapoor’s alleged head of operations in Tamil Nadu, the now-imprisoned Sanjivi Asokan. However, that idol was ultimately not stolen, quite likely due to timely action by authorities.
Included among the many other images that this correspondent was able to view was one of a stunning Ganesha idol that was said to have been hidden underneath a large amount of materials. Further, market values have been attached to several of the items taken from Kapoor’s galleries, including one bodhisattva stone idol, estimated to be worth $12,000; two Indian antiquities worth $15,000 and 22 wooden sculptures worth $328,600.
Kapoor is now in a Chennai prison and is said to have implicated others in his network including his son, daughter and brother, with whose connivance he allegedly hawked these ancient traditional idols to museums in New York and across the U.S. He apparently donated many of these works to these museums for no charge, in order to build goodwill with these institutions.
Simultaneously, he is said to have used his ring of smugglers spanning South and South East Asia and many parts of Europe to keep up a steady flow of stolen idols that ultimately financed a lavish lifestyle for his family. This notably included residing in five-star hotels across India, often the venues for his meetings with his gang leaders such as Asokan.