Exposing a multi-decade smuggling operation

November 11, 2012 12:15 am | Updated December 03, 2021 10:40 am IST - WASHINGTON

In February 2007, authorities in Mumbai detained a consignment heading to the Nimbus Import-Export Corporation in the U.S. The customs declaration said it contained “marble garden table sets.” However, when the consignment was stopped, they found that it contained Chola period idols, some valued in multiple-millions of dollars, and seven crates were seized.

While an analysis of databases revealed that one consignment had already been shipped out to the U.S. a week or so prior to the seizure, Indian authorities alerted their U.S. counterparts immediately and, as a result, the same month the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized the consignment.

It was ultimately to be delivered safely into the hands of the alleged kingpin of one of the most “successful” smuggling rings in the history of the Indian subcontinent — Subhash Chandra Kapoor.

Kapoor, who is said to hail from a multi-decade family history of plundering cultural institutions across South and South East Asia, had apparently made a rare mistake. Instead of having the consignment, which ICE said in a public statement were worth over $20 million, sent to intermediaries in Singapore, London and elsewhere as per standard operating procedure, Kapoor was said to have committed the error of having it directly sent to him from India.

When ICE pounced on the consignment and brought Kapoor in for questioning, he apparently acknowledged being aware of the laws governing importation of cultural properties from India, and the fact that shipment could not be lawfully imported. Therefore, he elected to abandon the items.

But the confidence that he may have inherited from his father, who is said to have similarly looted temples and other institutions in India, Pakistan and Nepal even since the 1960s, may have imbued him with a false sense of security.

Suggesting that Kapoor had failed to heed the warning of ICE’s seizure in 2007, a cooperating defendant reportedly said Kapoor was still looking for fresh artefacts between April 2008 and October 2011. At that time, an anonymous letter was also sent to Homeland Security Investigations in New York (HSI/NY) giving detailed information on Kapoor and his illicit cultural property activities.

Although he was said to have ultimately fled the U.S. before ICE could tighten the noose around his operations and arrest him, Indian authorities’ coordination with their counterparts abroad led to an Interpol ‘Red Corner’ notice against him for smuggling, and he wound up in a Chennai prison.

While Kapoor was subsequently said to have implicated others in his network of smugglers, including his brother, son and daughter, much of the evidence against him remains in the U.S., it has become evident. For example, during questioning, ICE recorded admissions of dealing in stolen or looted property, confessions of manufacturing false provenance, documented proof, and seized smuggled shipments at port — all part of a meticulous effort to tie Kapoor firmly to his operations.

Fate of stolen idols

Since the time of his questioning and subsequent arrest, Indian authorities are said to have mapped out the entire alleged chain of operations by Kapoor, Asokan and other associates in Tamil Nadu, from the actual theft of the idols from individual temples to their delivery to galleries in the U.S. and elsewhere. Crucial to this process has been the input of officers from the Criminal Investigation Department, Idols Wing, in Tamil Nadu.

This mapping may be of use in speeding up the process of investigation into the Tamil Nadu idols, currently in the possession of ICE. However, a similar exercise would be necessary for other parts of India from which Kapoor is said to have stolen idols, and this may require further coordination with state-level authorities as appropriate.

Gang bosses and their methods

The role of Sanjivi Asokan, whose links to Kapoor have reportedly been confirmed by authorities, is highly pertinent to this case for, he is said to be the leader of Kapoor’s gang of robbers. Asokan is under arrest following action by the Tamil Nadu CID.

The most commonly practiced method of theft by Asokan’s gang was outright robbery, which would likely entail breaking and entering, followed by forced removal while seeking to avoid detection, it has been revealed. However, in numerous instances, authorities are said to have recorded the use of bribery, including through the offer of alcohol.

Another key player who is said to be a key associate of Kapoor is London-based Kishore Bhatt. Bhatt is mentioned in a seizure report from 2009 by Mumbai authorities, in which Shiva-Parvati black sandstone statues from the 15th-century Pal period, said to be worth Rs. 2.5 crore, were recovered (they are now in the Customs Museum in Goa). In this case, a bogus export address was apparently provided and so neither Bhatt nor Kapoor could be traced after the seizure.

Bhatt was also said to be a known hashish smuggler who has been on Indian authorities’ radar for over 15 years, and has been arrested in the past. Although Bhatt is said to remain a free man in London, it is possible that he may find the noose tightening around his operations too, as cooperative efforts between Indian and U.K. intelligence gain momentum.

In terms of his area of expertise, Bhatt is considered a specialist in statues from India’s eastern States. Together, Kapoor’s Indian and international associates are said to be active in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

ICE and the road ahead

With regards to the process for the return of the high-value idols, there is said to be good and bad news for the many anxious temple trustees and worshippers across Tamil Nadu.

While the idols seized are still in the possession of ICE, the Indian authorities are said to have begun filing claims for the repatriation of those idols that are confirmed to be from India. Four claims have reportedly been filed already, with many more on the way as the investigation unfolds.

In many cases the idols are already placed in major museums across the U.S.; however, these museums will be under obligation to return them to India once their origin is formally established, it is understood. ICE will apparently seek to enforce a law according to which any idol that is shown, even retrospectively, to have been procured by fraudulent or illicit means will have to be returned to its original source.

The downside of this process is that ICE is said to be preparing its prosecution case against Kapoor and his alleged associates, and only after the case has been completed will it be possible to return the idols as appropriate. Until such time the idols are said to be held at a facility only known as “the fortress,” where a large number of idols from other countries are also currently being held in addition to the idols allegedly stolen from India.

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