The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) recently announced the return of 14 works of art from its Asian collection, back to India. Collectively worth 3 million dollars, the works include Chola-era bronzes, Jain artefacts and photographs taken by noted 19th-century photographer Raja Deen Dayal.
These treasures are part of a multi-million dollar scam, which first broke in 2011, and where rare idols and artefacts stolen from India were illegally sold to private collectors and museums around the world by a New York-based art dealer named Subhash Kapoor. In fact, according to the official website of US law-enforcement agencies (Immigration and Customs): "Subhash Kapoor's alleged smuggling of cultural artefacts worth more than an estimated $100 million makes him one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world today.”
While Subhash Kapoor is currently serving his term in the Tiruchirapalli Central Prison in Tamil Nadu, the whole saga throws a spotlight on the murky world of cultural artefact smuggling and temple thieves.
The Quest for Immortality
On 26th October 2009, it was a busy day at the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus at Koyambelu in Chennai. At Bay no 44, two men had stepped down from a bus and were seen hurriedly hauling a cylinder. Strangely, both men, who were history sheeters, had no other luggage with them.
A squad of the Economic Offences Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police, which had received a tip-off, had set a trap for them. While the two men were overpowered and arrested, the police were amazed at what they had stumbled across.
The LPG cylinder had been modified and had a screw-on lid. Inside the cylinder was a black bag under layers of newspapers, under which was a thick lump covered in sticky black paint. The police officers took the object to a nearby petrol pump to wash off the paint with petrol. As the paint came off, it began to sparkle, leaving the police speechless. It was a Shivalinga carved out of a single emerald!
This particular Emerald Shivlinga had been stolen from the Maruntheeswarar Temple in Thiruthuraipoondi, in the Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu. While it was believed to be worth Rs 53 crore, its religious value was priceless. According to local religious beliefs, there are seven such Emerald Shivlingas in temples across Tamil Nadu, which date back to the Chola Empire. It was believed that if all the seven Emerald Shivalingas were worshipped together, it would bring the worshipper the boon of immortality.
Five of the Emerald Shivalingas had been stolen from temples across Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the most famous being the one stolen from Adi Shankaracharya’s Temple at Kalady in Kerala, in March 2009. Was someone deliberately stealing these Emerald Lingas in their quest for immortality? Police had no answers but at least the first breakthrough had been made.
The Art of the Past
To this day, the mystery of the stolen Emerald Shivalingas has not been solved and they remain untraced. But clues would lead the police to Sanjeevi Asokan, a Chennai based notorious idol smuggler, and from there to Subhash Kapoor, who was then a famous art dealer in New York, supplying rare Indian artefacts to museums and art galleries around the world.
– The world of Indian antique smuggling is very murky and not very easy to understand. Today, in a bid to ‘bring our idols home’ , there is a tendency to label every Indian artefact abroad as stolen or smuggled, which is not the case.
Till the 1970s, the Government of India encouraged the sale of antiquities abroad, especially as it brought in much-needed foreign exchange. There are numerous files in the National Archives of India, in which there is evidence that senior government officials pushed for such a policy.
So most of the artefacts taken out of India before the UN Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1970) or the Indian Antiquities Act of 1972, are deemed to be legal exports and cannot be returned. This includes pre-Independence objects such as the Kohinoor diamond and the Amaravathi sculptures.
What is problematic is the thriving trade in objects stolen from Indian temples and archaeological sites after 1970. And this is when art dealer Subhash Kapoor made his millions.
Apparently, Subhash Kapoor’s tryst with antiquities began with his father, Parshottam Ram Kapoor, who arrived in India as a refugee during Partition and was allotted the home of a Muslim scholar in Jalandhar who had migrated to Pakistan.
The house was full of rare Islamic manuscripts and in 1962, and Parshottam Ram began a lucrative antiques' business at South Extension in Delhi, specializing in Pahadi paintings. Subhash Kapoor migrated to New York in 1974, where he set up an art gallery known as ‘Art of the Past’.
Due to the spectacular pieces that he sold, from the terracottas of Chandraketugarh, a 6th century CE site in West Bengal, to photographs taken by Raja Deen Dayal, he became a sought-after dealer in international circles. He is estimated to have traded in artefacts worth 200 million dollars, a lot of which we now know was smuggled.
The World of Idol Thieves
Singapore-based heritage activist Vijay Kumar, who played a very important role in unravelling the saga, has written extensively about the shadowy world of antique smugglers in his book The Idol Thief (2018). Vijay Kumar believes that Subhash Kapoor would not have been able to pull off these heists without the support of insiders in the Indian establishment.
Kapoor worked closely with a Chennai-based art dealer named Sanjeevi Asokan, who had developed a vast network of antique thieves who would target lesser-known temples and monuments for plunder. Kapoor would send photographs of the pieces that he wanted and Asokan would orchestrate the heist.
The Tamil Nadu police believe that it was Asokan who was behind the heist of the Emerald Shivalinga from the Adi Shankaracharya temple, though the case is still unsolved. Asokan would then export the stolen goods to Kapoor in New York through an export company named ‘Everstar International Services’. They would go first to Hong Kong and then to New York.
The thieves would target lesser-known temples in small villages of Tamil Nadu. Take, for example, the Nataraja that was returned from Australia in 2014. To steal a four-foot-tall Nataraja, Kapoor paid Rs 3 lakh to the thieves. He went on to sell the Nataraja to the National Gallery of Australia for 5 million dollars.
Another pair of idols stolen from a small village called Suthamalli (around 150 km inland from Puducherry) was put on sale for 8 million dollars! These numbers provide an insight into the sheer scale of profits that Kapoor made.
The ‘Abandoned’ Container
In his book, Vijay Kumar says that the fact that Kapoor was helped by ‘moles’ within the Indian establishment can be seen from the case of an abandoned container at the Mumbai port. In March 2007, Kapoor got a call from his source who told him that the US Customs had been tipped off by their Mumbai counterparts about a sealed container containing ‘garden furniture’. But the shipment weighed tonnes more than garden furniture could weigh, and the company shipping it was a garment supplier, raising suspicions.
– Kapoor decided to ‘dump’ the shipment, which contained Indian artefacts worth 20 million dollars. Surprisingly, while the container was seized by US authorities, Kapoor managed to evade arrest.
The Tamil Nadu police had been tracking the case all the while, and In March 2009, they finally arrested Sanjeevi Asokan, but to their surprise, all his computer hard disks had been scrubbed. Just as he seemed to slip through their net, the discovery of the Emerald Shivlinga in a cylinder in October 2009 led to him. The noose began to tighten around him.
At the same time, in New York, US Customs officials launched their own investigation into Subhash Kapoor. It was only by 2010 that the US authorities managed to uncover the sheer scale of his transactions. There were tonnes of consignments coming in shipping containers, in airfreight and in parcels. They were all covered in layers of intricate paperwork to avoid suspicion.
To build a case against Kapoor, the US authorities took the help of four people – Jason Felch, an American journalist; Michela Boland – an Australian investigative reporter; Dr Kirit Mankodi, an Indian historian; and Vijay Kumar, the Singapore-based heritage activist. Through investigative work, the team was finally able to link the 8-million dollar idols that Kapoor was attempting to sell, with those stolen from the temple at Suthamalli. This set the wheels in motion for an Interpol arrest warrant, and Kapoor was finally arrested from Frankfurt Airport in October 2011.
It was only after his arrest that the sheer scale of operations became public knowledge. This also threw a spotlight on the number of museums and art galleries that he had sold stolen objects to.
In 2014, the National Gallery of Australia returned the Nataraja it had purchased from Kapoor for 5 million dollars. Other pieces are yet to be returned.
But while much of the debate on ‘bringing our gods home’ campaign is focused on bringing stolen objects back to India, there is little discussion on what happens to them once they are returned. Across India, police godowns house tens of thousands of antiquities stored under poor conditions. There is no registry or database of what is present in India. Without fixing these things, repatriation of stolen objects to India is like a leaky bucket, with no guarantee that they will not be stolen again.