The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office have traced four of 18 idols stolen from Tamil Nadu, according to information available here. The investigation process involves a web of informers, secret recordings, and interception of mails.
According to a complaint filed by investigators in the Criminal Court of the City of New York, these four sculptures, valued at $14.5 million, were in the possession of Sushma Sareen, sister of Subhash Chandra Kapoor, the U.S.-based antiquities dealer now in jail in Chennai for his alleged role in the theft. Ms. Sareen, 60, was arrested and later released on bail.
This development has brightened the prospect of retrieving some of the idols stolen from Tamil Nadu over time and smuggled to the U.S. It also explicates the trail of the sculptures and Subhash Kapoor’s role.
The statement filed in court, which provides a detailed account of the investigation, were made available to The Hindu by Jason Felch of the Los Angeles Times, with whom this correspondent has been collaborating on the chase.
Between 2006 and 2008, about 18 ancient bronze sculptures were stolen from Suthamalli and Sripuranthan temples in Tamil Nadu. Among them were two of Nataraja and two of goddess Uma, all shipped to the U.S. Temple officials noticed the loss in the latter half of 2008, and filed a complaint with the local police. The Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police took over the investigation, traced Kapoor’s involvement and sought the help of Interpol to arrest him. Photographs provided by the French Institute of Pondicherry, which has been documenting temples in South India for decades, helped identify and trace the idols. Following a Red Corner Notice issued by Interpol, Kapoor was arrested in Germany and extradited to India in 2012.
Simultaneously, in 2007, U.S. investigators tracking illicit antiquities had their first major break when they arrested a person in California for Customs violation. Since then, this person, named as ‘Informant #1’, has been cooperating with the investigators. He had contacted Kapoor on several occasions seeking information about ‘illicit cultural property.’ The U.S. authorities roped in as an informant an employee of Kapoor’s ‘Art of the Past’ gallery.
In December 2008, the gallery offered to sell ‘Informant #1’ a stolen 12th century Nataraja bronze, valued at $3.5 million. Later in 2011, Kapoor personally offered to sell the same idol, along with it another Nataraja sculpture for $5 million. The informant recorded the conversation. During this time, as investigators later found in e-mails they reviewed, Kapoor put up for sale two Uma idols valued at $6 million. Details of how these reached Kapoor were uncovered in January 2012, following a raid on Kapoor’s storage facility in New York. Seized shipping documents revealed the idols were illegally sent from India via Hong Kong.
The Idol Wing had by then shared with the U.S. authorities photographs and details, confirming that the four idols were stolen from Tamil Nadu.
The 2012 raid by U.S. authorities got Selina Mohamad, who was keeping the four idols as directed by Kapoor, worried. She asked Sushma Sareen, Kapoor’s sister, to remove them from her apartment. U.S. investigators allege that Sareen moved them. The document filed in the New York court does not mention their current location.
The U.S. authorities allege that Sareen, who resumed the business after Kapoor’s arrest, continued the operations. They said that in the last few years, she “travelled to India, assisted with wire transfers and contacted antiquities smugglers” who had prior dealings with Kapoor. However, Sareen’s lawyer in Manhattan told The New York Times, which broke this story, that his client denied the charges.
Informed police sources in Tamil Nadu told The Hindu they had shared all details regarding stolen idols with the U.S. officials months ago. However, they are yet to receive any official response.