US returns 192 stolen artefacts worth $3.4m to Pakistan

Published November 12, 2022
A “Maitreya” idol that was returned to Pakistan.—Photo via Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
A “Maitreya” idol that was returned to Pakistan.—Photo via Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

The United States has returned 192 stolen antiquities — valued at nearly $3.4 million — to Pakistan after an investigation into an Indian-American art dealer, the Manhattan District Attorney’s (MDA) office in New York announced on Friday.

The announcement said that 187 of the artefacts were recovered from the art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, identifying him as one of the world’s most prolific antiquities traffickers.

The antiquities were returned during a repatriation ceremony at the Pakistan Consulate that was attended by Ayesha Ali, Consul General of Pakistan in New York, and US Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Thomas Acocella.

The art pieces and artefacts included a Gandharan statue depicting a Maitreya — an enlightened form of the Buddha — which was looted from Pakistan and smuggled into New York during the 1990s.

Kapoor had owned an art gallery in New York called ‘Art of the Past’ and a side business that specialised in selling antiquities from Southeast Asia when he was accused of smuggling and selling stolen artefacts, the MDA said.

It stated that the antiquities were looted from a Neolithic archaeological site in Pakistan before being trafficked to New York.

They were placed in a storage unit rented by agents of the art gallery until their seizure by US authorities this year, it added.

The archaeological site of Mehrgarh in Pakistan was discovered by archaeologists in 1974 and subsequently faced looting.

“Subhash Kapoor was one of the world’s most prolific antiquities traffickers, yet thanks to the work of our dedicated investigators and analysts, we have been able to recover thousands of pieces looted by his network,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said.

“We will continue to pursue full accountability against Mr Kapoor and his co-conspirators, who showed a blatant disregard for the cultural and historic significance of these antiquities,” he added.

Kapoor’s and his co-defendants’ past arrests

The announcement said that Kapoor was arrested in October 2011 at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany and extradited the following year to India on charges of having received stolen artefacts.

The stolen artefacts, which were from temples in Southern India, were then sold to museums around the world, it added.

He has been held in an Indian jail ever since and was convicted last week of receiving stolen property, habitually dealing in stolen property, and conspiracy by a special court in Kumbakonam, India.

Subsequently, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine, the MDA said.

The office of former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. obtained a warrant for Kapoor’s arrest in 2012 and he was formally indicted with seven co-defendants in a conspiracy to traffic the stolen antiquities in 2019.

Sanjeev Asokan, a co-defendant in the New York case against Kapoor, was also convicted and sentenced by the Indian court.

The announcement further told that prosecutors in the US also previously sought to have Kapoor extradited and said they are “continuing to pursue prosecution.”

Two other co-defendants in the New York case have already been convicted, including Richard Salmon in 2020 and Neil Perry in 2021.

Three other co-conspirators had been convicted as well — Selina Mohamed and Aaron Freedman in 2013 and Sushma Sareen in 2014.

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