National Gallery of Australia to return 13 stolen objects to India that it bought from disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor

"The decision to return the works is the culmination of years of research and due diligence," the Canberra museum says

13 of the objects from Australia's National Gallery of Art collection that will be returned to India Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

13 of the objects from Australia's National Gallery of Art collection that will be returned to India Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra announced today that it has deaccessioned 16 Asian objects acquired from the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor and his Manhattan gallery, Art of the Past.

The NGA's director Nick Mitzevich said that 13 of the works from Kapoor would be returned to their home country of India. He added that another three sculptures sourced by the museum from Art of the Past have also been removed from the collection. These three objects will also be repatriated after further research has identified their place of origin. Another work, which the NGA acquired from art dealer William Wolff, will also be returned to India. The 14 works comprise six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six photographs.

“Following this action, along with the repatriation of works in 2014, 2016 and 2019, the National Gallery will no longer hold any works acquired through Subhash Kapoor in its collection,” a statement from the museum says.

“The decision to return the works is the culmination of years of research, due diligence and an evolving framework for decision-making that includes both legal principles and ethical considerations.”

Subhash Kapoor was arrested in 2011 and is currently in jail in India pending the completion of his ongoing trial on smuggling and theft charges. Kapoor is subject to an extradition request from the Manhattan District Attorney.

On 20 July, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced the indictment of Neil Perry Smith, 58, following his extradition from London “to face charges for his role in a decades-long, global antiquities trafficking ring that looted and smuggled culturally significant relics from Asia and sold them in New York’s art market”.

Vance’s statement said: “Smith is charged with possessing and restoring 22 stolen pieces, with an estimated value of more than $32m. Smith’s restorations concealed the antiquities’ illicit origin so that alleged conspiracy ringleader Subhash Kapoor could then sell them at his now-closed Madison Avenue-based gallery, Art of the Past. From 2011 to 2020, the District Attorney’s Office and [Homeland Security Investigations] recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network over a three-decade span. The total value of the pieces recovered exceeds $143m.” Vance added that he looked forward to seeing Subhash Kapoor "inside of a Manhattan courtroom in the near future”.

The NGA probably feels the same way. In 2014, the National Gallery repatriated to India a bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja that was sourced from Subhash Kapoor. In the same year, the museum launched its Asian Art Provenance Project. As more information was uncovered as part of that project, more works of art were removed from the collection and repatriated.

Mitzevich says in a statement that the new provenance assessment framework considers available evidence about both the legal and ethical aspects of a work of art’s history. “If, on the balance of probability, it is considered likely that an item was stolen, illegally excavated, exported in contravention of the law of a foreign country, or unethically acquired, the National Gallery will take steps to deaccession and repatriate,” Mitzevich adds.

The Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed the decision to return the works. “The Government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” he says. “These are outstanding pieces. Their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India.”