The 30 or so guests enjoying spring rolls and white wine were gathered in a small third-floor
gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Subhash Kapoor, a convivial Manhattan
art dealer who had donated 58 miniature drawings of Indian aristocrats, deities and beasts.
On this spring evening in 2009, Kapoor, 60, owner of Art of the Past on Madison Avenue, stood
atop the Indian art world. After his 35 years in business, museums and collectors were paying
seven figures for his Hindu, Buddhist and South Asian antiquities. A 900-year-old dancing Shiva
went to the National Gallery of Australia, a 1,000-year-old bronze Ganesha to the Toledo
Museum of Art in Ohio.
What no one in the room knew was that Kapoor was under investigation on two continents,
suspected of running a $100 million art smuggling operation. Two years earlier, Indian officials
had tipped US authorities that a company in West Nyack, New York, Nimbus Import Export, was
about to receive seven crates from overseas labelled “marble garden table sets.” Today, US and
Indian investigators say they have compiled an enormous dossier against Kapoor: emails and
databases seized under search warrants; bank-transfer records and shipping forms; the
testimony of former associates, including his office manager, who were arrested and have
agreed to cooperate.
Much of the material has been the product of an investigation called Operation Hidden Idol. The
US authorities say they have concluded that the modest and esteemed Kapoor was, in volume
and value, the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in US history. Kapoor has adamantly denied
doing anything illegal.
Their best evidence, they say, is an almost unimaginable 2,622 items, worth $107.6 million,
confiscated mostly from storerooms in Manhattan and Queens, and virtually all of it contraband
Since 2011, when Indian officials had him arrested on charges of theft and smuggling, Kapoor
has been awaiting trial in a jail cell in Chennai. When that case is resolved, prosecutors with the
Manhattan district attorney’s office hope to extradite him to face charges that include receiving
stolen property. In April, they filed court papers asking for formal custody of Kapoor’s trove of
merchandise so that it can eventually be returned to India and other nations. Officials are also
urging unlucky Kapoor clients to surrender hundreds of costly treasures that they say were not
his to sell. Museums in the United States and abroad, including institutions in Massachusetts,
Ohio, Hawaii, Singapore and Australia, are shedding rare holdings because they came from Art
of the Past, which closed in 2012.
Kapoor, who started in the trade working alongside his father, rejects the allegations. His lawyer
in India, S Kingston Jerold, said his client dealt only in replicas and never exported or bought
It is a hard fall for a man long lauded by the international art market. In 2009, a prospering
Kapoor told Apollo magazine that his gift to the Met – which has not been challenged as illicit –
was “my way of giving back to the field.” Six years later, investigators say, Kapoor will be giving
back nearly everything.
For almost a millennium, priests have climbed the ruined stone steps of the Varadharaja Perumal temple, in what is now the village of Suthamalli in Tamil Nadu and entered a mosscovered chamber where dozens of 11th-century bronze and iron idols awaited prayers.
Balakrishnan Gurukkal, the latest in that line of priests, trod those steps on April 14, 2008, to
celebrate the Tamil New Year. Though the site had once been a vital place of worship, locals
now favoured another temple nearby, and Gurukkal had not been there for months. He reached
for the rusty lock on the flimsy metal gate and found it broken.
He lit a candle and stepped inside. The idols were gone. Within an hour, said Chelamma Kumar,
who lives beside the weed-strewn temple in a thatch hut overshadowed by a white and limegreen water tower, “there was a big crowd and lots of police with sniffer dogs and all that.” The
theft had occurred a bit more than a month earlier, Indian investigators said. Since that time, the
artefacts had sped from Suthamalli to Chennai to Hong Kong, then on to London and New
Jersey; been falsely labelled inexpensive handicrafts; and been deposited in a New York
storage unit controlled by Kapoor. Scrubbed and restored, they would soon be displayed in his
gallery, often identified as objects from private collections.
No one really knows when the looting Kapoor is accused of began. But India is a ripe target: It is
home to thousands of remote shrines and archaeological sites with rare Hindu artefacts that sit
unguarded. Vishakha N Desai, a scholar at Columbia University who knew Kapoor, said
government officials “show little concern for the protection of ancient heritage.” Representatives
from the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police Department, in Chennai, which focuses on
antiquities crimes, said Kapoor was already active in 2005 when he met with an associate,
Sanjivi Asokan, at the five-star Taj Connemara hotel there.
Indian prosecutors believe that men Asokan hired to commit the break-ins would even spread
tales of killer bees and bat infestations to keep villagers away from the targets. Asokan and
Kapoor would then smuggle the artefacts out of India, police say, and send them on serpentine
journeys to the United States.
“The scale and brazenness of the thefts is truly mind-blowing,” said S Vijay Kumar, a private
investigator from Singapore who grew suspicious after noticing that Kapoor was selling an
extraordinary number of rare Indian idols out of New York. With Kumar’s help, the Idol Wing set
about matching lustrous pictures from Kapoor’s catalogs with black-and-white images of the
Tamil Nadu statues, which had been photographed in the 1960s by French archivists from a
scholarly institute in India.
They saw that the objects being offered, in many cases for millions of dollars, bore a singular
resemblance to pictures of religious icons that had disappeared from Tamil Nadu and other sites
across India. In 2009, the Idol Wing distributed wanted posters of the statues. Soon, three
burglars suspected of being paid by Asokan were arrested with Suthamalli statuary in their
possession, police say. They implicated Asokan (who has been charged in India with theft and
smuggling) and Kapoor.
After comparing notes with those of US investigators, Indian officials in October 2011 issued an
arrest warrant for Kapoor, who was then in Frankfurt, Germany, for an exhibition, and German officials jailed him in Cologne. In July 2012, Kapoor, a US citizen, was extradited to his