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In pursuit of an art smuggler

How Subhash Kapoor, a New York-based art dealer, evaded arrest till an associate spilled the beans on him

In 2011, a celebrated New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, was detained in Germany for art theft, particularly of idols from temples in Suthamalli and Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu. He was extradited the next year to India and now awaits trial in Chennai. After his arrest, the American authorities recovered stolen Indian art worth $100 million from his warehouses and galleries, and named him “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor was helped by Sanjeevi Asokan, an art dealer based out of Chennai who supplied the idols. As S. Vijay Kumar, a Singapore-based finance and shipping expert, writes in The Idol Thief, Kapoor’s “arrest caused an earthquake in the art world, the tremors of which are still being felt”. Asokan was arrested, and identified Kapoor as the mastermind of the crime. An excerpt:

Subhash Kapoor and Sanjeevi Asokan had been dealing in antiquities for decades before they were caught. The Suthamalli and Sripuranthan idols, which ultimately did them in, were just a drop in the ocean. Many, many more treasures had passed through their hands. So how come they never got caught all those years? Well, for one, Kapoor had friends everywhere, and for another, he had the luck of the devil. Take, for instance, the case of ‘the container from Mumbai’. That was quite a close call for Kapoor.

Suspicious package

In March 2007 in New York, Kapoor got a call that made him go numb. According to newspaper reports it was his ‘contact’, someone who worked in the Indian consulate in New York, warning him that the authorities in the U.S. had been tipped off by their Indian counterparts about a container that was consigned to his company, Nimbus Import Export, Inc. Kapoor’s contact’s warning was clear and precise — ‘Stay away!’

In pursuit of an art smuggler
 

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Indian authorities at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai had become suspicious of a New York-bound shipment that was labelled as marble garden furniture. For one, the shipment weighed tonnes, much more than what mere garden furniture could possibly weigh, and, secondly, the exporter was a garment and textile company, not a furniture manufacturer. These things set off alarm bells. In fact, the shipment containing $20 million worth of Indian art, some of it stolen, was heading to Kapoor.

Dumping $20 million worth of goods was a heart-wrenching decision. But it had to be done. This was the cost of doing business. Kapoor immediately sent a message to his agent to abandon the shipment. Then he likely contacted his trustworthy associate, ‘Shantoo’, his saviour. Shantoo would sort out everything, go into damage control mode. After all, India was a land of compromises! And many ruffled feathers had to now be smoothed.

 

As Kapoor would have hung up, and put his phone into his pocket, had you been in the room, you would have seen his deformed right ear. He would later explain in his unpublished ‘statement of voluntary confession’ recorded by P. Ashok Natarajan, chief investigation officer, that “during my childhood days I was kidnapped for ransom and was rescued by police near Haryana Rajasthan border. In this incident one of the kidnappers bit off my right ear lobe and since then it has been deformed.”

Escaping the net

The newspapers in India announced the seizure of the goods in the U.S. with screaming headlines and long reports.

In an ideal world, this would have been an open-and-shut case. Kapoor should have been arrested then and there. The Hindu even reported that “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 nothing happened. The case just fell through the cracks in the U.S. The agent in charge of the case didn’t seem to want to move on it. All that was left were many questions that are still unanswered.

Why didn’t the Indian authorities themselves stop the shipment at Mumbai? Who made that warning phone call to Kapoor? How did the caller have confidential information shared between the Indian authorities and U.S. Customs? And why was Kapoor allowed to continue his trade for years after this?

Shortly after Kapoor got that warning call, he got busy. If the Mumbai-New York route was under watch, he had to find another way to get his shipments to America.

He had been using the Hong Kong route earlier, to get to New York the Ardhanarishvara idol that he later sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004 for $300,000. Now he asked his assistant to reactivate it by contacting their trusted associate Lai Sheung at Union Link International Movers Ltd in Hong Kong. He once more planned to use the Chennai/Kolkata/Mumbai-Hong Kong route to get his hauls out of India and then ship the goods to New York via London. Here’s how it worked: Lai Sheung would receive the shipment in Hong Kong, keep it for a while, and either directly send it on to Kapoor in New York or sometimes send it to Neil Perry-Smith, an art restorer, in London who would then send it to Kapoor after a while.

Excerpted with permission from Juggernaut

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 5:14:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-pursuit-of-an-art-smuggler/article24786195.ece

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