State of the Art

Amateur investigators stem the tide of antiquities smuggling

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

Aria Thaker is a journalist who reports on the intersection of technology and politics for Quartz India. She was formerly a copy editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Archaeological Survey of India Indian Art museums blogger Antiquities Stolen art Temples Smuggling Dealers
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