NEW YORK – A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Wednesday in New York City for his role in coordinating a large-scale conspiracy to sell stolen Indian antiquities worth tens of millions of dollars. The investigation leading to the guilty plea was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Aaron Freedman, 41, of Princeton, worked for nearly two decades as a manager at Art of the Past, a Manhattan art gallery that served as a front for the sale of stolen and looted Buddhist and Hindu statues. As the store’s manager, Freedman pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy in the fourth degree for conspiring to criminally possess stolen property in the first degree, along with five counts of criminal possession of stolen property in the first degree. He admitted to assisting Art of the Past owner Subhash Kapoor, 64, with shipments of stolen antiquities from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia, as well as providing false provenances. As part of the conspiracy, Freedman assisted with the sale of stolen artwork to galleries and museums across the world, which included the sale of a stolen $5 million Shiva Nataraja statue looted from the Sivan Temple in India, which is now on display at the National Gallery of Australia and the attempted sale of a 2nd century B.C. Bharhut Stupa Yaksi pillar sculpture valued at approximately $15 million, which is now in HSI NY custody pending forfeiture.
In total, Freedman pleaded guilty to six felony counts related to criminal possession of stolen property valued at roughly $35 million. He has also agreed to cooperate with the ongoing HSI investigation and prosecution of Kapoor, who is currently in the custody of Indian authorities for arranging the theft of statues from significant cultural and religious sites in that country. Kapoor also faces charges in New York County for possession of stolen property.
"Kapoor is by far the biggest smuggler, in terms of numbers of antiquities stolen and their market value, that we have seen," said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge for HSI New York. "HSI special agents continue to search and seek recovery of dozens of bronze and sandstone images of Hindu and Buddhist deities sold by Kapoor."
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 75 attaché offices in 48 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 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 26 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.