State of the Art

Amateur investigators stem the tide of antiquities smuggling

Rishabhanata, a tenth-century sandstone sculpture of a Jain deity, was seized by the Homeland Security Investigations in New York in March. {{name}}
01 May, 2016

Across New York City this March, upper-crust galleries, museums and auction houses hosted the seventh annual Asia Week: a ten-day event to celebrate and promote Asian art. But these celebrations were soon tainted, when agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a federal law-enforcement body, raided Asia Week five times to seize artworks suspected to have illicit origins. In its first raid, on 11 March, HSI confiscated two Indian statues from Christie’s, a prominent auction house, just four days before they were to be sold. Of the handful of news stories that covered the seizure, none mentioned Vijay Kumar: the art enthusiast-turned-investigator who made it possible.

A shipping manager in Singapore with no formal training in art, Kumar has spent his free time for the past six years tracking stolen Indian antiquities across the world’s massive black market for art. A Chennai native, Kumar leads a team of more than 100 collaborators from different countries who pool their resources to locate objects that seem freshly lifted from the ground—or simply “fresh,” in art-industry parlance. Donna Yates, a lecturer who researches art crime at the University of Glasgow, told me in early April that Kumar’s work is admired in academia. “He styles himself as an amateur,” she said, “but he has become a real expert in this field.” Kumar told me over Skype that the work of his team has resulted in about 250 such seizures across the globe. These amateurs’ impressive successes, however, point to a corresponding failure—the Indian government’s inability to address the country’s antiquities-smuggling crisis.

Kumar and HSI’s paths crossed after the 2011 arrest of Subhash Kapoor, a dealer whose upmarket Manhattan gallery traded heavily in art smuggled from India. Kumar told me that after Kapoor’s arrest, he and his team helped locate and scrutinise many objects connected to the dealer, including statues recently returned to India—billed as “gifts”—by the German and Australian heads of state. But despite his work on such cases, Kumar’s attempts to assist Indian authorities on the Kapoor case went largely unheeded. “It was like a merry-go-round of one department pushing us to another department,” he said. Finally, in 2013, Kumar met with the “top people” of the Archaeological Survey of India—the central body responsible for conserving the country’s antiquities—and offered to share information with them. But he was rebuffed; Kumar said there was “no traction on the Indian side.”

At the same time, he had also sent word to US authorities, “to see if they would be interested” in a collaboration. They were. After about a year of correspondence, HSI shared with Kumar a few hundred entries from Kapoor’s vast digital Rolodex, which contained listings of many looted objects that the dealer had been offered for sale. HSI granted him this access, Kumar said, because they believed he was “able to do more work than any government agency in India, or any expert scholar, on the Kapoor case.” Their faith bore fruit: within three days, Kumar told me, he had pinpointed the illicit origins of about 20 objects listed in the partial archive.

One of those was a tenth-century sandstone sculpture of Rishabhanata, a Jain deity, sitting cross-legged. Kumar recognised the statue as a piece linked to Vaman Ghiya, a high-profile dealer who was arrested in 2003 for smuggling about 10,000 pieces out of India over a three-decade career. (He was convicted of both possessing and trafficking in contraband, but, in 2014, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted him on procedural irregularities, in what Kumar called “a black dot of embarrassment on India.”) According to Kumar, who had been tracing the fallout of Ghiya’s arrest for years, two of the dealer’s former employees opened their own art dealership in London, at which they kept the Rishabhanata on consignment. Thus, the sculpture was geographically outside HSI’s jurisdiction, so the agency could not seize it. But luck struck this February, when Kumar saw it in a Christie’s catalogue, valued at $150,000 and listed for imminent sale in New York. He alerted HSI, prompting the 11 March raid.

The Rishabhanata, however, accounts for only a miniscule portion of India’s lost antiquities. After Kapoor was arrested, authorities raided his New York warehouses and confiscated over 2,600 pieces, worth a total greater than $100 million. Kumar said that considering the scale of Kapoor’s and Ghiya’s loot, about 30,000 to 40,000 pieces were likely smuggled out of India between 1990 and 2010.

Art flows from the country through a well-oiled pipeline, with gangs of thieves doing the dirty work of illegal excavation and burglary, middlemen primping and photographing the works in preparation for sale, and dealers such as Kapoor and Ghiya often forging provenance documents before selling the pieces to wealthy buyers. Jason Felch, an investigative reporter who has written about art theft and worked with Kumar, told me that such smuggling “exists wherever there are countries that tend to have poverty above ground and ancient richness below ground”—and also, in India’s case, in poorly-guarded temples.

Vijay Kumar, a shipping manager in Singapore, has spent his free time for the past seven years tracking stolen Indian antiquities across the globe. COURTESY VIJAY KUMAR

Kumar uses social media to spread the word—keeping a blog, making YouTube videos and running Facebook groups. One reason he relies so heavily on such platforms is that the country’s press coverage about art smuggling lacks depth. Individual cases are occassionally reported, but with little context about the widespread nature of art smuggling.

The Indian government, Kumar said, is also in denial about the “scale and quantum of this loot.” He cited a statement made to the Lok Sabha last August by the tourism and culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, which acknowledged only eight thefts of antiquities that had occurred in the previous year. In 2013, a report submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General excoriated the Archaeological Survey of India, citing, among other grievances, how the organisation “had never participated or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at well known international auction houses.”

DN Dimri, an ASI director in charge of antiquities, dismissed the report, telling me, “if they want to criticise, they are free to criticise.” He was similarly dismissive of Kumar’s contributions. “We appreciate his concern,” he said, but added that Kumar’s work only seeks to prove that “these are the art objects of Indian origin” that have been smuggled out of the country. Kumar, Dimri claimed, does not compile information about the “when and how” of these thefts, including official reports of the crimes. Without such a paper trail, he said, the ASI cannot repatriate objects.

This was a major simplification of Kumar’s work. For example, in one of his latest victories, he facilitated the November 2015 repatriation of an eleventh-century bronze idol called Uma Parameshwari. After a United States-based librarian couriered Kumar a photograph of the Uma in a magazine advertisement for Kapoor’s gallery, he was able to locate the piece’s original resting site: a temple in Tamil Nadu that had been looted in the early 2000s. In 2009, the Uma had been documented as stolen on the website of the state’s police. Armed with this information, Kumar alerted both the Indian authorities as well as the statue’s buyer—Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum—about the theft, and instigated the Uma’s repatriation.

Despite his disappointment with the Indian bureacracy, Kumar believes things in India are improving: there were no repatriations during the previous Congress-led government, but, Kumar told me, there have been about nine so far under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “All of them,” he said, “are from our team’s work.”

But Kumar is not content to stop there. When he first started, Kumar said, his objective “was to bring back the few pieces that we had identified that were stolen.” But after coming to understand the sheer scale of art theft, he now prefers to tackle the broader machinery that enables it. To this end, he and a team of collaborators are amassing a crowd-sourced database of pieces resting in museums and other collections abroad. At 15,000 entries and counting, Kumar claims theirs is the largest such archive of dispersed Indian art. The availability of this comprehensive archive, he said, will make it more difficult for dealers to conceal pieces’ illicit origins.

Perhaps improbably, given his status as an industry gadfly, Kumar was once offered an entry to the elite art world. A “reputed auction house,” he said, tried to hire him as a consultant to “pre-vet” their purchases for stolen goods. “Just send me the details, I’ll do it free,” Kumar remembered telling them. “But if I find something that’s fresh or a match, you have one week to inform the authorities.”

He paused, his tone almost weary. “And that was the last I heard from them.”