The sandstone stele of Rishabhanata from the 10th century, one of the ancient sculptures recovered during federal agents raid at Christie’s. Image courtesy of Department of Homeland Security
NEW YORK, NY- Just at the height of Christie’s preparation for the celebration of the Asia Week, officials with the United States Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Homeland security stormed the auction house and took away two India artifacts. The auction house describes the two ancient sculptures as a 10th-century sandstone stele of Rishabhanata and an 8th century sandstone panel of the equestrian deity Revanta and his entourage.
The raid was part of an investigation of looted treasures and stolen artifacts. At the center of the investigation is Subhash Kapoor, a former Manhattan gallery owner. For more than five years, Mr. Kapoor has been the subject of an intense international investigation. According to investigators, Mr. Kapoor ran one of the biggest antiquities smuggling operations ever uncovered in the United States.
Christie’s has vehemently denied knowledge that the ancient sculptures seized by federal agents were stolen. Valued at $450,000, the two Indian sculptures were part of Christie’s The Lahiri Collection: India and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern auction. The auction was scheduled to celebrate Asia Week in New York. Asia Week commemorate Asia art and culture. Events were held at the Japanese Society, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tibet House.
Mr. Kapoor has denied all allegations even as he awaits extradition to India, where he will face charges for plundering archaeological sites and conspiring with dishonest traders to send looted artifacts overseas.
An informant who had previously pleaded guilty to possessing stolen property is assisting investigators, federal agents and Manhattan district attorney’s office to track some of the looted treasures associated with Mr. Kapoor.
The recent raid at Christie’s goes to the heart of the allegations investigators have been making for years. Investigators have alleged for years that many of works handled by Kapoor had been stolen. The allegation came after thousands of items valued at over $100 million were seized from his storage space in New York city. Some of the items seized included bronze and stone statutes believed to have looted from temples in India.
The search for the ancient sculptures recovered at Christie’s began in 2012 after a raid of a storage area affiliated with Mr. Kapoor. During the raid, investigators found images of stolen antiquities, including those of the two ancient artifacts to be auctioned at Christie’s.
Beyond the images found at the storage space affiliated with Mr. Kapoor, American and India investigators say they have even more compelling evidence against Mr. Kapoor. The evidence include emails, database, bank records, shipping forms and testimony from some of Mr. Kapoor’s associates.
Christie’s spokeswoman, Jenifer Ferguson, explained that the auction house is cooperating with government agents in the investigation. She noted that she had been informed by authorities that evidence indicating that the seized works were stolen was not publicly available for the auction house for use in venting.
“This is one of the difficulties the art market faces in venting antiquities, which is why Christie’s very much values building strong relationship with and between countries of origin, law enforcement, archaeologists, and collecting community,” she said.
As the investigation around Mr. Kapoor continues, there is great effort by investigators to recover more illicitly-obtained artifacts. Prosecutors in Manhattan have also expressed their intentions to extradite Mr. Kapoor to India to face charges.