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How Indian sleuths tracked 2000-year old artifacts in US

When the United States returned India some of its long-lost national treasures during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, there were some people back home who beamed with pride.

business Updated: Jun 10, 2016 13:35 IST
Timsy Jaipuria
Timsy Jaipuria
Hindustan Times
Narendra Modi,Directorate of Revenue Intelligence,Saint Manikkavichavakar
US attorney general Lorreta Lynch with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) look at the statue Khajuraho, 12th century, made from red sandstone, during a ceremony marking the repatriation of over 200 artifacts to the Indian government, in Washington, Monday.(PTI)

When the United States returned India some of its long-lost national treasures during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, there were some people back home who beamed with pride.

In a ceremony in Washington, DC, attended by US attorney general Loretta Lynch and Modi, nearly 15 US museums on Monday handed back to the Indian government more than 200 ancient artifacts worth more than $100 million, which were stolen from various religious sites in India and smuggled out of the country.

Sources with direct knowledge of the development said an Indian agency - Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) - helped the US in catching hold of the smuggled artifacts.

Almost unknown till now, the DRI is the investigative agency that had in 2007 alerted the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through the New York consulate about “a shipment of seven crates manifested as containing ‘Marble Garden Table Sets’ consigned to Nimbus Import Export Inc.”

Most of the artifacts were seized during the Operation Hidden Idol in 2007, conducted by the ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the US attorneys’ offices in the eastern and southern districts of New York, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.

Following the lead given by the DRI, Nimbus Import Export Inc, which has a registered office at 2 Cross Field Avenue, Suite 205, West Nyack, New York, was then chased by the ICE and the consignment was detained, sources said.

On detailed examination by the ICE on the DRI’s alerts, “the consignment was found to contain rare Indian art and antiquities.”

Though at that time, the consignment was abandoned by a person named Subash Kapoor in 2007, it is still being held by the ICE as evidence of smuggling against Kapoor, which might help the DRI in the trials in India.

Sharing the back story, sources said, “it was days and nights of investigation series for the DRI and the agents were sharing the leads with the then US Consul-Trade. This council had lodged the claim of Indian ownership of the antiquities with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency.”

But, who is this Subhash Kapoor and how did he get into this illegal business?

Sources said a very detailed investigation both in India as well as New York help the investigation agencies crack the whip on this smuggling racket.

“After collecting detailed intelligence/information about the nefarious activities being indulged in by Subash Kapoor, the ICE searched various galleries and warehouses owned and controlled by him on January 5, 2012… The ICE in the course of search seems to have stumbled upon a treasure trove of antiquities in these galleries and warehouses owned or controlled by Subash Kapoor,” sources said.

Investigations made by the ICE established that “Art of the Past”, a gallery located at 1242 Madison Avenue, New York was owned and operated by Subash Kapoor. “Kapoor Galleries”, located at 1015 Madison Avenue is owned and operated by Ramesh Kapoor and his son Suneet Kapoor. Ramesh Kapoor and Subash Kapoor are sons of Parshotam Ram Kapoor, who was an Antiquities dealer,” sources said.

The investigations have also established that “Parshotam Ram Kapoor was operating in the antiquities trade since 1947 from Jalandhar in Punjab. Somewhere in 1962, he along with his two sons Subash and Ramesh relocated to New Delhi to accommodate the growing demands of the antiquities trade. Both Subash and Ramesh moved to New York City in the mid 1970’s. They had been trading in Indian Antiquities since then.”

According the ICE, the investigation found that Subash Kapoor allegedly created false provenances to disguise the histories of his illicit antiquities.

Kapoor was arrested in 2012, and is awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars worth of rare antiquities from several nations.

The artifacts returned include statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years.

Among the pieces returned is a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (circa 850 AD to 1250 AD) stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai. It is valued at an estimated $1.5 million. There is also an 11th Century bronze of Ganesh.

(With inputs from agencies)

First Published: Jun 10, 2016 13:35 IST