Despite concerted efforts to recover stolen Indian antiquities, many of them are still being held by galleries and museums around the world. In part one, we look at who is stealing these artworks. In part two, we will focus on who is buying stolen goods and why it is so hard to get them back.
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Researched by: Rachel John
First, the big picture
The illegal trade of antiquities is one of the largest black markets in the world—valued at $10 billion a year. The recovered objects range from Cambodian sand sculptures to mosaics from the Roman emperor Caligula’s ship. Most of them are not even reported as stolen. Between 2017 and 2020, law enforcement recovered almost ten times more stolen objects worldwide than the number reported missing. And the buyers of stolen goods include the most revered cultural institutions in the world. Example:
Facing prosecution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art surrendered a golden mummy coffin after learning that it was stolen during the Arab Spring. Traffickers dumped the corpse into the Nile before it ended up in New York, where Kim Kardashian posed next to it at the Met Gala. The museum apologized to Egypt and reformed its acquisition policies.
If you’re curious, this is the photo that got the Met in trouble—and resulted in the arrest of a global ring of smugglers:
As for India: The sheer volume of theft is dismal. The biggest hauls in the global market often involve Asian countries because their unguarded temples make easy targets. Since independence, only 486 artefacts have been reported as missing from the 3,696 monuments managed by the Archaeological Survey of India. But a separate government audit conducted in 2018 shows that 4,408 items were stolen from protected monuments between 1992 and 2017—and only 1,493 were recovered by the police. In the same period, 1,200 ancient idols were stolen from the temples in Tamil Nadu alone.
Data point to note: According to some experts, around 1,000 pieces of ancient art are stolen from Indian temples every year—but only 5% of the thefts are reported.
Tell me more about how this smuggling works…
Meet the thieves: While we may complain bitterly about white colonialists who stole our heritage, the modern-day chor is very much Indian. And they are neither poor nor desperate to make a living:
International antiquities smuggling is effectively a white-collar crime in India: it requires capital and education, and the participants use the wealth that the business generates to cultivate an image of social respectability.
For example, Vaman Narayan Ghiya—who operated “one of the most extensive and sophisticated clandestine antiquities rings in history.” He owned a massive handicrafts showroom—and was a well-respected card-carrying member of the Jaipur elite. He looted thousands of artefacts with the help of small-time thieves who scouted and raided temples in remote parts of the country:
When a statue was stolen from a temple or bought for some small amount from a local farmer, it was brought to a middleman, who photographed it. The photograph would then make its way, often through further intermediaries, to Ghiya. These photographs were sent to prospective buyers abroad, or taken by Ghiya on sales trips to London and New York.
Quote to note: Ghiya was so brazen, he once told a Sotheby’s buyer: “If you want the Taj Mahal, I’ll send it to you. I’ll take it down piece by piece.”
Another example: Subhash Kapoor—a well-connected Manhattan arts dealer and patron of the Met. He was once feted by the museum for 58 miniature drawings to its collection. Kapoor was also the ringleader of a $100 million art smuggling operation. US law enforcement raids on his properties recovered 2,622 items, worth $107.6 million:
American authorities say they have concluded that the modest and esteemed Mr. Kapoor was, in volume and value, the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history.
Kapoor established his impressive record with the help of Sanjivi Asokan. In 2005, they came up with an ambitious plan to loot dozens of ancient temples in Tamil Nadu:
Indian prosecutors believe that men Mr. Asokan hired to commit the break-ins would even spread tales of killer bees and bat infestations to keep villagers away from the targets. Mr. Asokan and Mr. Kapoor would then smuggle the artefacts out of India, the police say, and send them on serpentine journeys to the United States.
Point to note: Kapoor and Asokan had plenty of help at each point of this “serpentine journey”—custom officials who looked the other way, friends in Hong Kong who would mislabel his cargo and muddy its trail, and art experts who created fake letters of ownership.
Something to see: Below is a terracotta rattle—titled ‘Rattle in the Form of a Crouching Yaksha’—that dates back to 1st century BCE. It is one example of the kind of artefacts Kapoor sold to the Met. The Indian Express has a longer list with images.
FYI: Kapoor was arrested in Germany in 2011—and extradited to India. He’s now being held in Tamil Nadu awaiting extradition to the US—where he will be prosecuted once again for his crimes. But Ghiya has managed to escape serious punishment. He was arrested in 2002—and sentenced to ten years in prison. But he walked away scot-free in 2014 when he was acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court for “tardy investigation.”
The bottomline: In part two, we look at the Western buyers of these stolen artefacts—who claim innocence and are never prosecuted. We also look at the dismal example of stolen treasures from Kashmir—and explain why it is a struggle to get artefacts back.
We highly recommend this 2007 New Yorker piece on Vaman Narayan Ghiya—which has lots of colour and detail. Also worth your time: this 2015 New York Times report on Operation Hidden Idol—aimed at snaring Subash Kapoor. Bloomberg News has a good overview of the global black market—while The Diplomat focuses on India.