U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) Special Agent Brent Easter is a self-described Indiana Jones, investigating crimes involving cultural property, art and antiquities and then working with experts to authenticate those items, determine their true ownership and return them to their countries of origin.
Much like the fictional character in the legendary series, Easter works to identify smuggled artifacts, determine the value of stolen coins and combat smuggling networks and transnational organizations.
It is a career he has dreamed of since his days at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he studied anthropology and archaeology. Having since turned that dream into reality through his work with HSI’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities program, Easter recognizes he’s fortunate to come to work every day and do something he enjoys, while supporting ICE’s mission.
Easter’s efforts were recently highlighted in the film “Hidden Idols,” the latest installment of ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight’s “Signals” series.
In “Hidden Idols,” producer and director Jason Kohn follows Easter as he tracks the black market sale of antiquities, tracing sacred artifacts stolen from a village in India to a store on Madison Avenue in New York City owned by Subhash Kapoor, described as one of the most prolific art smugglers in the world. According to Easter, the majority of the items being investigated appear to be Hindu deities. The primary pieces that Kapoor is specifically charged with stealing in India are Chola Bronzes. These are Hindu “Hidden Idols” that don't just symbolize the gods but rather they embody them. When a village loses such an idol, it is as if the village has lost a god and its members believe they could be cursed as a result.
“Like in the Indiana Jones move, ‘Temple of Doom,’ these are artifacts or idols that the people of India believe impact their daily lives,” Easter said. “Many of the idols we are investigating were stolen from Hindu temples that are thousands of years old in Tamil Nadu. We are still trying to locate some today and have traced many of these looted artifacts to locales, collections, institutions, and museums all around the world.”