Asia Week in New York during March was rocked by a series of US government seizures that seemed aimed at sending a message to those in the antiquities trade. The court-ordered raids, carried out by the Manhattan District Attorney (DA) and the Department of Homeland Security, led to the confiscation of eight artefacts from three galleries and two auction houses.
Asia Week, which has grown significantly since its launch seven years ago, featured 46 international galleries this year (there is a small art fair during the week) and ran from 10 March through 19 March. The first seizure on 11 March was followed by more on 14, 15 and 17 March, each incident garnering headlines in the New York Times and elsewhere, with the confiscated items ranging from a first-century sandstone relief of a couple to a tenth-century bronze sculpture, all Hindu and Buddhist in their origins.
By 22 March, one Tokyo-based dealer, Tatsuzo Kaku, had already pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a stolen second-century Buddhapada sculpture. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to time-served for co-operating with authorities. (Kaku’s case was unique in that, according to emails in the criminal complaint, he said that he knew the sculpture in question was looted.)
Every confiscated artefact was in some way related to Subhash Kapoor, the Upper East Side dealer who awaits trial in India accused of running a smuggled antiquities ring. Given that Kapoor was arrested back in 2011 and US authorities have seized the records of his Art of the Past gallery, the timing and quantity of the latest raids suggest that the government was trying to send a message.
“Clearly it was something that had been planned in a very thoughtful way to try to make a public impression,” says the dealer Lark Mason, who is chairman of Asia Week.
The Manhattan DA’s office declined to comment on the timing of the confiscations, though it released a statement from district attorney Cyrus R. Vance that seemed to confirm that assessment and imply that the dragnet is not yet finished.
“Every year, fine art collectors from around the world flock to New York for Asia Week, where they spent a reported $360m last year on Asian antiquities and art,” Vance says. “With high demand from all corners of the globe, collectors must be certain of provenance before purchasing. I urge dealers and auction houses to take every necessary precaution to avoid facilitating the sale of cultural heritage stolen from other civilisations.”
Those whose livelihoods are threatened by such raids took issue with just this point. Cultural heritage lawyer Kate Fitz Gibbon of the Committee for Cultural Policy says that if the US government truly wanted dealers to take every precaution, it would have shared its information about Kapoor-related items before the seizures. “They are playing a game of ‘gotcha’ with dealers and auctions,” she says. “They wait for something to be offered and then they say ‘gotcha’ for publicity. What is the point of that?”
“How is an art gallery or a museum supposed to know that an object is tied to Kapoor, or stolen, if the information is not available?” she adds, suggesting that whatever information agents used to make the seizures should have been posted on a public database, such as the Art Loss Register.
Christie’s—which had two Indian sculptures seized from its auction, The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern—concurred in its statement on the incident: “Government officials have informed us that the evidence they uncovered determining that Lots 61 and 62 were problematic was not publicly available and, therefore, could not have been accessed by Christie’s for vetting purposes.” Together the sculptures had an estimated value of $450,000.
The moves by the DA’s office and Homeland Security join other recent crackdowns by the US government. Preet Bharara, US attorney for the southern district of New York (a federal office), has made noted efforts in the repatriation of illegally imported cultural artefacts. Meanwhile, the US Senate voted last month to restrict the importation of all artefacts from Syria, after reports that objects have been looted from heritage sites during the ongoing civil war there.
It is a situation that has left many collectors and dealers acting in good faith feeling victimised and tarred with the same brush as unethical ones.
Asian antiquities appraiser Michael Cohn, speaking of the latest Asia Week raids, says that they were part of a general swinging pendulum that saw collectors of such artefacts, who used to feel like stewards of the past, feeling like “possible grave robbers”.
“Given this, collectors are afraid to expose their collections,” he says, “and dealers and collectors are hesitant to acquire. Museums are hesitant to acquire even by donation. It is my opinion that good pieces with excellent or reasonable provenance are being held back until the air is cleared.”