Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Federal-State Cooperation on Display in Heritage Trafficking Prosecution of Kapoor Relative

In July 2012, CHL wondered whether federal-state cooperation and the use of state criminal law--as opposed to federal criminal law--to prosecute international heritage trafficking may be taking shape in New York City. Sushma Sareen's arrest last week answers that question.

Tom Mashberg of the New York Times broke the story that Sareen is charged with crimes related to the Indian idol trafficking case of Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor is Sareen's brother. He was detained in Frankfurt, Germany in 2011 under authority of an INTERPOL Red Notice and was later extradited to India on July 14, 2012. Kapoor is currently awaiting trial. He owns Art of the Past gallery and Nimbus Import Export on Madison Avenue in New York City.

It was reported in July 2012 that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor, charging him with possession of stolen property. Sareen, meanwhile, is charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property under New York State penal law. A Manhattan criminal court released her on $20,000 bond, $10,000 cash, scheduling her next appearance for January 8, 2014.

The charges against Sareen are serious offenses. They allege receiving property valued at $1 million or more. The property alleged to have been possessed are four Chola bronze statues that include two of Shiva of Nataraja, which are valued at $3.5 million and $5 million, respectively; one statue of Uma Parameshvari valued at $2.5 million; and one statue known as Uma-Parvati valued at $3.5 million. 

A person is guilty of criminal possession of stolen property in the first degree in New York, which is a Class B felony punishable by imprisonment, when the person "knowingly possesses stolen property, with intent to benefit himself or a person other than an owner thereof or to impede the recovery by an owner, and when the value of the property exceeds one million dollars." PL 165.54.

Available information shows that the Kapoor/Sareen heritage trafficking case rounded the circuit from Indian police to INTERPOL to U.S. Homeland Security to Manhattan authorities, illustrating the type of enforcement cooperation that is possible when combating transnational criminal activity.

Indian officials contacted U.S. Homeland Security in February 2007 to report that antiquities were perhaps being smuggled into New York, according to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). That same year, federal prosecutors in the Central District of California concluded a customs-related false statements prosecution on the west coast, according to information contained in the criminal complaint against Sareen. The defendant in that federal case then began to serve as an informant for HSI, working on the Kapoor investigation.

The Sareen complaint describes how the informant went to Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery in New York on December 4, 2008 and was offered the $3.5 million Shiva of Nataraja. The informant returned to the gallery on September 27, 2011, this time wearing a wire. He reportedly recorded a meeting with Kapoor who presented the Shiva for sale along with another Shiva statue. The Sareen criminal complaint alleges that "Kapoor indicated ... that he had been holding both of the items for a few years, and further stated that he expected the items to appreciate by 10 to 15 percent per year from the current fair market values of $3.5 and $5 million."

The complaint states that photographs obtained from an Art of the Past CD show the two Shivas plus the two Umas in pictures dated February 26, 2008. S. Selvaraj, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Idol Wing Criminal Investigation Department (CID), told HSI Special Agent Brent Easter that these statues were stolen from the Varadharaja Perumi temple in Tamil Nadu sometime between February and April 2008.

One month after the September 2011 meeting with the informant, German authorities detained Kapoor on October 30 at the Frankfurt airport.

Back in the U.S., the criminal complaint claims that Sareen was in knowing possession of the Shivas and Umas on November 1, 2011. It is unclear how she was in possession of them on the time and at the place alleged since the complaint declares that Sareen possessed the items at 1 Hogan Place, which is the address of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. The complaint additionally explains that a November 3, 2011 letter from Kapoor to a certain individual gave instructions that the Shivas and Umas should be given back to a named person. Neither the certain individual nor the named person were Sareen. And the certain individual moved the bronzes to the named person's apartment, according to the complaint.

Both the certain individual to whom Kapoor wrote the letter and the named person who was directed to receive the Shivas and Umas are implicated in the criminal complaint as having known that the items were stolen. But a search of state and federal court records does not reveal that either has been charged, which is why they are unnamed here.

The complaint goes on to state that HSI executed a search warrant on January 5, 2012 at both Art of the Past and the gallery's storage units on Manhattan's west side. That action, according to information conveyed to federal agent Easter, prompted the named person to not "want[] the four stolen bronzes kept in her apartment." "It was arranged with defendant Sareen that the four bronzes would be picked up and moved to a 'safe location'" so that the bronzes would be "safer with her [Sareen]," the complaint alleges, adding that Sareen made the shipping arrangements, having deciding not send the bronzes back to the Art of the Past gallery. The "safe location" has not been identified. This contention in the complaint, nonetheless, conveys that Sareen had control over the bronzes at this particular time.

Further questions are raised by the complaint's recitation that the "defendant [Sareen] has been closely involved with the illegal business of Art of the Past since Kapoor's arrest in 2010." Kapoor was arrested in 2011 as described above. Where the complaint describes how Sareen "traveled to India, assisted with wire transfers, and contacted antiquities smugglers with prior dealings with Kapoor," it is uncertain whether these allegations cover a time frame since 2010 or from October 30, 2011, when German authorities arrested Kapoor.

Court records do not list when exactly New York authorities became involved with the Kapoor investigation. It is clear, nevertheless, that federal and state authorities were engaged by July 2012. That is when Homeland Security returned to Art of the Past's warehouse location--along with the media--and mentioned for the first time that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office was a local partner. Where the federal judiciary presumably issued the warrants for the searches executed on January 5, 2012 and July 26, 2012, the first date given in court documents showing a search warrant issued by a state court--the Supreme Court of New York City--is March 16, 2013. The execution of that warrant yielded emails from Art of the Past, which were reviewed by special agent Easter. Those emails allegedly reveal efforts by "another gallery owner in New York inquiring about and attempting to sell for commission the $5M Shiva ..." and "yet another individual ... in email negotiations with Kapoor to purchase the $5M Shiva" along with the two Umas.

Easter's federal investigation supports the state court complaint filed by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos against Sareen. This cooperation follows on the heels Bogdanos' recent conviction of Arnold Peter Weiss with help from HSI, and the Manhattan District Attorney's prosecution of ivory dealers with assistance from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

See chasingaphrodite.com for their in-depth coverage of the Kapoor investigation.  They have also posted a copy of the complaint.

Photo credit: aschaeffer

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2010-2013 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com