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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New York prosecutor returns 307 looted murtis and antiquities to Bharat

New York public prosecutor Alvin Bragg has returned to Bharat and Pakistan hundreds of looted ancient murtis, statues and figurines, some as old as 5,500 years, that were brought into the US by criminal networks such as the one masterminded by Subash Kapoor, a convicted antique smuggler.

Bragg’s office in Manhattan said that 235 antiquities from Bharat, including many sacred images from temples, had been seized during investigations into the multinational predations of Kapoor across Bharat, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries.

The smuggled items were sold through Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan, the office said. One of the pieces, a marble sculpture known as the Arch Parikara from the 12th or 13th century, was returned by Yale University Art Gallery which had received it as a donation from the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd family foundation that bought it from Kapoor.

Bragg said: “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.”

In recent weeks, the prosecutor has been returning stolen art to the countries that they came from, including Cambodia, Egypt, Israel and Italy.

A total of 307 items valued at about $4 million were handed over to Bharat’s Consul General Randhir Jaiswal at a ceremony last month, according to Bragg’s office. The office said that five of the Bharatiya antiquities were seized during investigations into smugglings by Nancy Wiener and her late mother Doris Wiener.

An item seized from them and headed back to Bharat is a statue of Bhagwan Vishnu and Maa Lakshmi with Garuda from the 11th century looted from a temple in central Bharat, the office said. Bragg also returned to Cambodia a sandstone statue of Bhagwan Vishnu that had been stolen form a temple and trafficked by Doris Wiener, according to his office. Another of the items from Bharat was found during investigations into Nayef Homsi and the other 66 were stolen by several smaller trafficking networks, the prosecutor’s office said.

During more than a decade of investigations starting in 2011, it said that along with Homeland Security Investigations it had seized more than 2,500 items valued at over $143 million trafficked by Kapoor and his network.

“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,” Bragg said.

Kapoor and five of his accomplices, including Sanjivi Asokan, were convicted by a special court in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu earlier this month on charges of stealing sacred images from temples for sale abroad. Kapoor, who was arrested in Germany in 2011 in an operation known as Operation Hidden Idol and extradited to Bharat, has been sentenced to 10 years.

The prosecutor’s office said that warrants are out for Kapoor and five of his accomplices to face charges in New York and Bragg is seeking their extradition.

Bragg returned to Pakistan 192 statues and figurines totally valued at $3.4 million last week and of them, 187 were unearthed during investigations into Kapoor, his office said. Among them were what are called Mehrgarh Dolls, terracotta figures of the mother goddess estimated to be from 3500-2600 BCE that were looted from the Mehrgarh archaeological site in Pakistan.

Another was a statute depicting a Maitreya form of Lord Buddha, from the Gandharan period, 1000 to 2000 BCE. The prosecutor’s office said that they had been seized from storage units belonging to the Art of the Past gallery. The Maitreya statute had allegedly been looted and smuggled by the Butt Network of Zahid Parvez and Zeeshan Butt using their family businesses spread across Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Dubai, the office said. The network supplied the international art market with stolen antiquities from countries including, but not limited to, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, it added.

Bragg’s office said that five co-conspirators of Kapoor — Richar Salmon, Neil Perry, Selina Mohammed, Aaron Freedman and Sushma Sareen — have already been convicted by courts in the US.

Among the key organisations that helped US authorities in their investigation and in verifying the provenance of the antique murtis and figurines was India Pride Project (IPP), a global organisation dedicated to restoring Bharat’s lost heritage.

“The cooperation between India Pride Project, Mumbai-based professor of archaeology Dr Kirit Mankodi and HSI (US Homeland Security Investigations) along with the Manhattan DA office is a classic example of how the law enforcement should work hand-in-hand to build prosecution cases to bring down the Antiquities trafficking networks,” said IPP co-founder Vijay Kumar as per a Times of India report.

“Today’s restitution is commendable and its success will help build stronger co-operation between ASI, Indian law enforcers and HSI, hopefully leading to India signing the cultural property MoU with the US and the UNIDROIT convention soon,” he added.

(With IANS inputs)

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