Monday, July 30, 2012

Unveiling the Import and Export of Trafficked Heritage: The Kapoor/Art of the Past Case Examined

Source: Tamil Nadu Police
International antiquities trafficking networks will utilize legitimate and illegitimate shipping methods to advance cultural heritage crimes. That is why a consideration of the solutions to combat illegal antiquities trafficking must examine how objects are imported and exported. The current American and Indian investigations into Subhash Kapoor offer a timely case study into the alleged transnational smuggling of cultural heritage.

Kapoor is currently under arrest in India, charged with idol trafficking.  He is an American citizen who owns Art of the Past gallery and Nimbus Import Export on Madison Avenue in New York. Click here and here for further details.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports that Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) involvement in the case began in February 2007 after having been contacted by the government of India. The agency says, "The Indian Consulate advised HSI that an import and export company was expecting the arrival of a shipment containing seven crates manifested as 'Marble Garden Table Sets.' The consulate believed these crates contained stolen Indian antiquities. This merchandize (sic) was allegedly imported by Kapoor."


The bill of lading reveals that the shipment weighed 1400 kg (3086 lb.) and occupied seven containers. The merchandise is actually described in the bill of lading as a "Garden Table Set" as opposed to "Sets." The shipper is listed as Palae Knit Exports in Ludhianda, India. The shipment left Jawaharlal Nehru, India on the Singapore flagged ship, APL Alexandrite, before arriving at the port of New York on February 10, 2007. The receiver of the goods is listed as Nimbus Import Export, Inc. with an address in West Nyack, NY. (It is important to note that neither the shipper nor the shipping company are implicated in any wrongdoing.)

A few interesting highlights about this shipment, which may have alerted customs agents at the border, are that:
  • it was the weight of a subcompact car and not a garden table set;
  • the exporter was a garments and textiles supplier and not an outdoor furniture or stone supplier;
  • Nimbus Import Export, Inc. is Kapoor's import company, and he owns an antiquities shop rather than a garden furniture company; and
  • the shipping address of the company is not the same as the one listed in official New York State records. (As reported on July 18 on this blog, Nimbus Import Export's officially listed address is in Manhattan, at the same place as Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery, and not in West Nyack, NY.)
Comparing additional import records associated with Nimbus to information collected by Indian police yields further information about how cultural artifacts may have entered the United States. Bills of lading explain that Nimbus Import Export received the following listed merchandise from Everstar International Services since 2006 (spelling errors in the original electronic bills of lading):
  • Handicraft Items (brass Ganesh, Brass Krishna, Brass Deve, Brass Nandhi) - U.S. arrival: 2/28/06
  • Indian Hand Made Artistic Handicraft Articles -  U.S. arrival: 6/10/06
  • Indian Hand Made Artistic Handictaft Artickes (brass Ganesh,brass Deepalakshmi,brass Murugan) -  U.S. arrival: 8/5/06
  • India Hand Made Artistic Handicraft Articles -  U.S. arrival: 9/13/06
  • Indian Artistic Handicraft -  U.S. arrival: 12/27/06
A 2009 document, published by the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police Department and which details the alleged trafficking of idols to the United States, reports that arrested export agent Packia Kumar ran a company called Ever Star International Services. Everstar  (as it is spelled in the import records) purportedly exported newly crafted statues mixed with illicit commodities. The report says that "part of the stole[n] antique idols were mingled with [n]ew metal idols. (Like 2 or 3 stolen idols with 4 or 5 new metal idols) and presented the export invoice with a false affidavit that all the idols in the consignment were recently manufactured." The report goes on to describe how the export certificates listed the idols as "Artistic Handicraft Products," and names Nimbus as the receiver of the alleged illegal exports. This information confirms the information listed in the bills of lading outlined above.

Meanwhile, ICE describes the types of cultural objects that made their way to Kapoor in the United States, which went undetected by customs officials at the border (except for those objects perhaps recovered following the 2007 tip-off by Indian authorities, but it is unclear from ICE's press release what action the agency took in response to the call received from the Indian consulate). "By the end of January 2012, HSI special agents had seized dozens of antiquities" in New York, according to a July 26 ICE press release, including
  • a 1600 pound Buddha head
  • a life sized stone figure weighing 500 pounds
  • three Chola period bronze sculptures, depicting Uma Parvati, Sivagami Amman, and Murugan
  • A sandstone statue depicting Kubera, chief of the Yakshas, from the Indian Gupta period;
  • a grey schist statue depicting Herkules-Vajrapani from the Kandahran Kushan period; and
  • a sculpture depicting Shakyamuni Buddham from the Indian Chola period.
"This investigation has uncovered that Kapoor allegedly created false provenances to disguise the histories of his illicit antiquities," concludes ICE.

Art of the Past gallery in New York posts "Closed for Inventory,"
one day after ICE raided Subhash Kapoor's storage units.
Examining the import and export methods surrounding the Kapoor case not only can aid police in the United States and India in their current investigations targeting the alleged idol thief, but it can help policymakers, criminologists, and scholars think about better ways to detect, uncover, interdict, and prosecute future crimes of heritage trafficking. Indeed, the Kapoor case may even be the one that prompts stakeholders to give serious consideration to WikiLoot, a proposal that Chasing Aphrodite author Jason Felch describes as "an initiative to crowd-source the fight against the black market in looted antiquities."

Meanwhile, as museums and collectors hopefully research their collections to discover whether they own pieces acquired from Kapoor, they should take note that even modern and legitimately imported items in their collections may have been used to mask potentially illegal shipments of cultural objects.

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2012 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. CONTACT: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com