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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
11/17/2015

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ICE HSI partners with Ball State University and the David Owsley Museum of Art to recover a hidden idol stolen from India

ICE HSI partners with Ball State University and the David Owsley Museum of Art to recover a hidden idol stolen from India

MUNCIE, Indiana – Representatives from the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University transferred Monday a religious relic known as a Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Under the auspices of Operation Hidden Idols, special agents with HSI's cultural property unit were able to determine that this idol had been looted from a temple in Southern India and brought to the United States illegally. HSI formally took custody of the artifact, which is linked to the ongoing investigation.  For the past five months, officials at the museum worked hand in hand with HSI to identify the stolen piece.

The bronze sculpture of Shiva and Parvati, from the Chola Period (860 -1279 CE), Tamil Nadu, South India (15 x 12.25 x 6 inches), was sourced illegally from India under the direction of Subhash Kapoor and smuggled into the United States. Around 2004, the stolen idol was delivered to Kapoor's former Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past. Kapoor displayed the Shiva and Parvati sculpture for sale and misrepresented the idol's true origin. In 2005, representatives from Ball State University became unwitting victims as Kapoor provided the museum with a false provenance for their artifact. Kapoor had a fraudulent provenance attributed to Leo Figiel that placed the artifact back to a U.S. collection in1969.

HSI special agents have tracked many false provenances provided by Kapoor, the owner of Art of the Past Gallery, which has been one of the pillars of Operation Hidden Idols. This methodology of back-tracking an artifact to its theft site and searching out the smuggling methods from the source country to Kapoor's U.S. gallery has led to numerous recoveries. To date, HSI special agents, in conjunction with the Manhattan prosecutor's office, have netted in excess of 2,500 artifacts worth more than $100 million. These artifacts stem from countries around the world.

"The theft, trafficking and/or destruction of cultural artifacts is one of the oldest and most sinister forms of transnational crime. To profit from the sale of someone else's ancient religious relic which is priceless to the people who worship it, is egregious and disrespectful to all faiths," said Glenn Sorge, acting special agent in charge for HSI New York.  "HSI's long-term goal is to reduce the incentive for this kind of criminal activity. Our partnerships with institutions like Ball State University are instrumental to this effort. We hope that other collectors, institutions and museums will see this surrender as a successful example of a way to move forward when dealing with artifacts that might be of concern."

"The David Owsley Museum of Art, as with the Toledo Museum of Art and several other major collecting institutions, cooperated fully with the U.S. and Indian governments in the investigation of works sold by the dealer Subhash Kapoor," said Robert La France, director of the David Owsley Museum of Art. "The Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati was the only work of art in this museum's collection purchased from Kapoor. Homeland Security Investigations has presented convincing evidence that the work was stolen and its documentation falsified."

The Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati will be shipped to New York where it will serve as potential evidence in Operation Hidden Idols. Ultimately it is anticipated the item will be forfeited and repatriated to India along with at least six other sacred Chola bronzes recovered by HSI.  

HSI's Operation Hidden Idol focuses on the activities of a former New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor, who is currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars' worth of rare antiquities from several nations. The trails of looted artifacts have been traced all around the world. Within the past eight months, two domestic museums, the Honolulu Museum, the Peabody Essex, and one major collector have partnered with HSI to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor. Over the last three years, HSI special agents have executed a series of search warrants targeting Kapoor's Manhattan gallery, along with warehouses and storage facilities linked to the dealer. Additionally, three individuals have been arrested in the U.S. for their role in the scheme.

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve illegally importing and distributing cultural property, including illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI International Operations, through its 64 attaché offices in 46 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

HSI's specially trained investigators assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Since 2007, more than 7,200 artifacts have been returned to 30 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru; as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 01/06/2016