In pursuit of an art smuggler

In 2011, a celebrated New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, was detained in Germany for art theft, particularly of idols from temples in Suthamalli and Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu. He was extradited the next year to India and now awaits trial in Chennai. After his arrest, the American authorities recovered stolen Indian art worth $100 million from his warehouses and galleries, and named him “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor was helped by Sanjeevi Asokan, an art dealer based out of Chennai who supplied the idols. As S. Vijay Kumar, a Singapore-based finance and shipping expert, writes in The Idol Thief , Kapoor’s “arrest caused an earthquake in the art world, the tremors of which are still being felt”. Asokan was arrested, and identified Kapoor as the mastermind of the crime. An excerpt: Subhash Kapoor and Sanjeevi Asokan had been dealing in antiquities for decades before they were caught. The Suthamalli and Sripuranthan idols, which ultimately did them in, were just a drop in the ocean. Many, many more treasures had passed through their hands. So how come they never got caught all those years? Well, for one, Kapoor had friends everywhere, and for another, he had the luck of the devil. Take, for instance, the case of ‘the container from Mumbai’. That was quite a close call for Kapoor. Suspicious package In March 2007 in New York, Kapoor got a call that made him go numb. According to newspaper reports it was his ‘contact’, someone who worked in the Indian consulate in New York, warning him that the authorities in the U.S. had been tipped off by their Indian counterparts about a container that was consigned to his company, Nimbus Import Export, Inc. Kapoor’s contact’s warning was clear and precise — ‘Stay away!’ According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Indian authorities at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai had become suspicious of a New York-bound shipment that was labelled as marble garden furniture. For one, the shipment weighed tonnes, much more than what mere garden furniture could possibly weigh, and, secondly, the exporter was a garment and textile company, not a furniture manufacturer. These things set off alarm bells. In fact, the shipment containing $20 million worth of Indian art, some of it stolen, was heading to Kapoor.

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