The Denver Art Museum this summer relinquished nearly two dozen relics from India associated with one of the world’s foremost smugglers of illicit antiquities.
The return comes as part of a 15-year investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office into Subhash Kapoor, a former New York City gallery owner, who authorities say operated a vast looting network from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
U.S. authorities filed extradition paperwork for Kapoor in 2020, but he remains imprisoned in India, where a trial into his alleged dealings is ongoing. Five of the disgraced dealer’s co-defendants already have been convicted.
Along with Denver’s 22 objects, the Manhattan DA’s office this week returned 285 other antiquities — valued at nearly $4 million — to India during a repatriation ceremony at the Indian consulate in New York City.
“We are proud to return hundreds of stunning pieces back to the people of India,” District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. said Monday in a news release. “These antiquities were stolen by multiple complex and sophisticated trafficking rings — the leaders of which showed no regard for the cultural or historical significance of these objects.”
The Denver Art Museum’s return of the relics comes as authorities are ramping up cultural property investigations — going after items from wealthy collectors and museums alike that might have been looted and sold decades ago. And it’s happening amid a worldwide reckoning in the art world over provenance, cultural heritage and the role of colonialism in European and American collections.
Denver’s list of Kapoor items includes Indian antiquities dating back to the 1st century. There are 2,000-year-old plaques from the West Bengal Province, figurines of Hindu deities, steel sheathes and daggers, and Islamic reliefs from the 15th century.
Roughly half of the repatriated relics came to the museum via gifts and half were purchased between 1986 and 2007, said Kristy Bassuener, a museum spokesperson. She couldn’t say whether these items came from Kapoor himself or whether the museum acquired them via other dealers.
In a statement posted to its website, the Denver Art Museum said the return follows “proactive outreach in 2021 to the Manhattan DA alerting the prosecutor’s office of the objects associated with Kapoor in its collection.”
The museum shared with prosecutors a list of all 31 pieces in its collection associated with Kapoor, Bassuener said in an email. The district attorney requested 22 to be repatriated — which museum officials voluntarily relinquished in July — leaving nine still in Denver’s collection.
None of the remaining works are on display.
“The museum is continuing its research into the remaining artworks associated with this collector,” Bassuener said.
New York and federal authorities say they’ve recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network since 2011 — with a total value north of $143 million.
Operation Hidden Idol resulted in what authorities in 2015 called the largest antiquities seizure in American history. The multi-year raids led investigators to an assortment of storage rooms across Manhattan and Queens, where Kapoor stashed bronze statues of Hindu deities worth millions of dollars.
His 2019 indictment by a New York grand jury outlines a staggering scale of global looting from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries.
Prosecutors, in the 140-page indictment, allege Kapoor and his ring smuggled items into the U.S. using false import documents, while creating fraudulent invoices and provenance papers saying artifacts had left their source countries legally. He also used art restorers to clean up the looted goods for sale on the open market.
The former gallery owner has been jailed in India since 2011, where he’s standing trial on charges of theft, smuggling and trafficking thousands of antiquities from Southeast Asian shrines and holy sites.
The Denver Art Museum in recent years has faced a reckoning over its own collection.
The museum in August gave up four looted Cambodian relics acquired from Douglas Latchford, a disgraced Southeast Asian art collector and dealer. In May, it formally removed a plundered Benin plaque from its collection — the first step toward repatriating the prized artifact to Nigeria.
The Manhattan DA’s office, in particular, has been aggressive in getting museums and collectors to give up artwork alleged to have been stolen.
This summer, New York authorities returned 142 looted antiquities to Italy. Investigators also seized a host of pieces this year from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including alleged stolen works valued at more than $11 million.
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