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US art dealer charged in US$145m smuggling ring

Kapoor, 70, is currently jailed in India, where he has been awaiting trial on similar charges for nearly eight years.

[LOS ANGELES] In a sweeping new criminal case, Subhash Kapoor, a former New York art dealer who the authorities describe as one of the world's largest smugglers of antiquities, was charged on Monday with running a multinational ring that trafficked in thousands of stolen objects, valued at more than US$145 million, over 30 years.

Kapoor, 70, is currently jailed in India, where he has been awaiting trial on similar charges for nearly eight years.

Before his downfall in 2011, he was widely feted in New York art circles for consistently obtaining remarkable items for sale and for his donations to museums. After his imprisonment in India though, federal officials referred to him as "one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world".

Even though the general scope of Kapoor's smuggling had been laid out in previous investigations, many details in the complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office were new, and jarring.

For example, officials revealed that 39 looted antiquities, valued at US$36 million, are still missing. Officials said Kapoor had been able to hide those items, even after his initial arrest in Germany in 2011, by instructing employees to entrust the most valuable ones to his family members, who moved them to "an unknown location".

So far, some 2,600 antiquities, valued at more than US$107 million, have been seized from storage locations Kapoor controlled in New York during a decade-long investigation, the authorities said. The smuggling ring harvested objects from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand, the complaint said, and it created false paper trails that gave the items an appearance of legitimacy, then sold them globally for large profits to collectors, art dealers and museums.

Kapoor was charged along with seven co-conspirators, most of them overseas, who would also require extradition. Arrest warrants for all eight men were filed on Monday in the Criminal Court of the City of New York, along with a painstakingly detailed complaint that reconstructed a smuggling scheme stretching back to 1986.

Much of the evidence put forward by the authorities, including federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations, was based on tens of thousands of records seized from Kapoor's former Manhattan gallery, Art of the Past.

Those records, officials say, included detailed logs of trips Kapoor made to India to meet with conspirators, often to see the objects he would ultimately acquire. The records also show how artifacts were secreted into the United States using false import documents; how many were then shipped to London to be cleaned and restored for sale; and how the conspirators created fraudulent invoices and provenance papers asserting the items had left their nations of origin legally.

Two of the accused co-conspirators were identified as restorers who enhanced the value of the pieces — often still marked by the dirt from which they had been dug up by hired thieves — and brought them back to life as treasures.

Items said to have been smuggled by the ring and later sold include Hindu and Buddhist statues in stone and bronze that are considered national treasures. In 2005, officials say, a statue of the goddess Uma Parameshvari was stolen from a temple in India and smuggled via Hong Kong to London. After restoration it was shipped to New York and was offered for sale in 2008 for US$2.5 million, according to one of Kapoor's catalogues.

Investigators said buyers included many museums around the world, among them the Toledo Museum in Ohio and the National Gallery of Australia. Often, Kapoor would briefly lend an item to a museum to bolster its legitimacy, telling his customers the object had been vetted by reputable experts, the complaint said.

For now, the objects are being held in secure storage by both federal and local investigators.

Georges Lederman, Kapoor's lawyer in New York, said on Wednesday that he was "in the process reviewing the charges" and would not immediately comment.