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Ariyalur, Chennai: By the time the new security gate arrived at the Brihadeeswara temple in the summer of 2008, nobody in Sripuranthan, a small village in central Tamil Nadu, had been inside Shiva’s temple for decades—or so the villagers believed.

Although anyone could walk into the stone-walled enclosure, open as it was on one side to the wide bed of a dried-up lake and on the other to the village, the doors of the temple itself had been locked since the mid-1970s. Around that time, the villagers recalled, the local priest had packed his things and left for Chennai, fed up with his meagre salary, and the government had taken over the temple’s guardianship. Since the old priest’s departure, nobody had shown much interest in the temple, except for truant schoolchildren, who would climb its crumbling walls, riddled with the roots of peepul saplings, to hide in the crevices of the great dome.

There was also the problem of the killer bees.

Over the past few years, a rumour had begun to spread about a deadly strain of bee living inside the temple, deterring devotees who might otherwise try to open the wooden doors and visit the gods locked up inside. Nobody could remember where they heard the bee story first, but the older villagers still recalled a few details about the statues of the deities that lined the temple walls: idols representing Ganesha, Chandrasekara, as well as the saint Sampanthar, a couple of sinuous Sivagami devis and, finest of all, a bronze Nataraja depicting Shiva in his cosmic dance. The idols were more valuable than the villagers knew, 11th and 12th century Chola-era bronzes that could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the more salubrious environs of auction houses on the other side of the world.

But the temple had not been entirely forgotten. In June 2008, officers from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department showed up in Sripuranthan, suggesting that the idols be taken away for safe storage in a dedicated icon centre. Reluctant to hand over their treasures, the village administration promised to secure Brihadeeswara with an iron grill gate instead. Less than two months later, on 18 August, the new gate was delivered. At about 3pm, according to the first information report filed with the Tamil Nadu Police, a crowd gathered—the government officers along with local police and villagers—to break open the old doors. But the lock was already broken. The doors opened, exposing the dark interior, thick with small bats and the acrid smell of their droppings. There was not a killer bee in sight, but eight of the precious idols were missing. “We cried as we heard the news," said 82-year-old N. Govindarajan. “Our gods have been stolen."

A little less than four years later, in January 2012, a team of special agents was about to raid a building on the upper west side of Manhattan. Some wore black bomber jackets with the words “POLICE, SPECIAL AGENT, HSI" emblazoned on their backs in yellow. HSI is Homeland Security Investigations, under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The targets were two storage units allegedly belonging to 63-year-old Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a US citizen and expert on Indian antiquities, who had acquired a reputation as a patron of the arts, through his gifts and sales of rare Indian artworks to major museums all over the world. The location of the raid was a Sofia Storage Centre on West 83rd street, a family-owned business that claims to have housed treasures from King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and even the Mona Lisa, in its 101-year history.

In their raid, agents discovered about $10 million (around 55 crore today) worth of Asian antiquities to add to that illustrious list, including a five-foot-tall head of a Buddha weighing approximately 1,600 pounds (720kg). A further raid on 26 July turned up artworks worth another $20 million, in two more units held in Kapoor’s name, according to a statement released by HSI. Among the second stash were three Chola era bronze sculptures, one depicting Uma Parvati, valued at nearly $2.5 million, one of a Sivagami goddess, and a third of Murugan. All three bore strong resemblances to items registered as stolen from temples in south India, according to HSI. “It appears that all three pieces can be seen on the Tamil Nadu Police website and on the Interpol Stolen Works of Art Database," the report said. It’s not yet clear whether the lost idols from Sripuranthan were among the loot.

The US customs officials had been on Kapoor’s trail for almost five years, according to HSI. In February 2007, “the Indian consulate advised HSI that an import and export company was expecting the arrival of a shipment containing seven crates manifested as ‘marble garden table sets’", said an HSI release. “The consulate believed these crates contained stolen Indian antiquities." The importer in question, Nimbus Import Export Inc., was registered at 1242 Madison Avenue in August 2005, according to the New York department of state’s division of corporations—the same address as Art of the Past, Kapoor’s elegant gallery-cum-exhibition space.

It took five years for sufficient evidence to be accumulated, according to Luis Martinez, spokesperson for HSI ICE. “The department of homeland security has access to large customs databases, which allows it to track importations. It is suspected that others are involved," Martinez said in an email. Kapoor had already aroused suspicion in other arenas, however.

In October 2010, archaeologist and blogger Damien Huffer visited New York. Hearing about the prominence of Kapoor’s gallery on the dealers’ scene, he poked his head into Art of the Past out of curiosity, and his suspicions intensified.

“Although historic pieces were on offer too, the prehistoric stuff fit the description of cases reported by the Tamil Nadu idol wing and Museum Security Network (an online database of cultural property)," Huffer said in an email.

He posted a blog alerting others to his theory and, by February 2011, he was being threatened by Kapoor, he said. “He accused me of deliberately trying to spread lies and threatened to go to the lawyers. When I told him that I’d take the offending posts down, he thanked me and tried to shift blame onto his ex-fiancee and the ‘corrupt’ idol wing."

Kapoor was arrested in October 2011, after Interpol issued a red-corner notice (an international arrest warrant) at the request of the Tamil Nadu Police, while passing through Frankfurt international airport on what his lawyer described as “a lecture tour". By 14 July, he’d been extradited to India, where he is now detained in Puzhal prison in Chennai, awaiting his bail hearing. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has also issued a warrant for Kapoor’s arrest.

A little past midnight on 14 July this year, Lufthansa flight LH 758 landed in Chennai. On board were a group of investigators from the idol theft wing of the Tamil Nadu Police department and their detainee: Kapoor. “Since this is a white-collar offence, we told him that we would keep off the handcuffs if he co-operated," said one inspector, who did not want to be named. The inspector’s wife had been less relaxed about the journey; she’d envisioned an airborne scuffle at some point, like in the movies, he said.

Landing in Chennai, the team hit the road immediately and drove south through the night to reach the Ariyalur circuit house, just a few miles from Sripuranthan, where Kapoor would be held for a week of questioning. Kapoor ate the roadside food bought along the way—dosas, puri and parotta. He drank his coffee without milk or sugar and communicated with the Tamil police in American-accented English. Videos of his detention period show Kapoor exercising vigorously in an airy, but unfurnished 150 square feet room, and napping intermittently on a yoga mat. “He is quite glib, (although he) does not talk much," one inspector reflected.

The mood in the idol theft wing, housed in a cement-plastered government building in west Chennai, was decidedly upbeat a couple of weeks after Kapoor’s arrest; if successful, his would be the most high-profile prosecution in their history. Three investigators, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described their prisoner with a sense of melodrama befitting such an important catch: Kapoor, they said, is a “sophisticated criminal who shows no remorse or guilt. He cannot be provoked to giving a response".

Nevertheless, the police did manage to extract a confession of sorts. They presented Kapoor with photographs, they say, obtained from the archives of the French Institute at Puducherry, of the missing idols from Brihadeeswara and another raided temple in the nearby village of Suthamalli. According to an officer, Kapoor identified six or seven idols from the pictures and confessed to have sold them to museums and private collectors in Hong Kong, Australia, the US (Chicago) and the UK. As with all confessions given under police custody, Kapoor’s is not admissible in court, however, and his lawyer, Kingston Jerold, insists that his client refused to sign any statement and that he will plea “not guilty" to charges. Mint was not able to speak to Kapoor, while he remains in judicial custody.

The case against Kapoor is plausible, though far from water-tight. He is linked to the temple thefts by a Keralan antique dealer, Sanjivi Ashokan. Ashokan, the police claim, had survey maps of the areas around the temples and books on south Indian idols. The police believed he was hiring locals to carry out strategic burglaries from temples that he knew were seldom used. But the ultimate recipient of the stolen goods remained a mystery.

Soon after the incident at Brihadeeswara in August 2008, police apprehended a couple of petty thieves from a nearby village: Rathinam and Kaliaperumal, who came to Ashokan’s office in Chennai to sell him an Amman idol. Further investigation turned up an export agent, Ever Star International Services, run by a man called Packiakumar, who was arrested alongside Ashokan on 25 March 2009. The officers also recorded meetings in September 2005 and in 2006 between Ashokan and Kapoor that took place at the Taj Connemara hotel in Chennai. Here, they thought, might be the man who was payrolling Ashokan’s organized thefts.

Rathinam and Kaliaperumal told police they made three trips to Brihadeeswara in 2006 at Ashokan’s instruction. In January, the police say, they first broke into the Sivan temple, took three idols, and glued the broken lock back together so no one would notice. They sold these idols to Ashokan for 2 lakh. Ashokan purchased similar-looking new idols and packed them all off together, in a shipment on 30th January from Chennai harbour to New York, with falsified certificates disguising them as newer, cheaper handicraft.

The invoices and shipping documents reviewed by Mint show that cases of items classified as “Indian hand-made artistic handicraft articles", valued at a few hundred dollars each, and weighing up to 225kg, were exported directly from Ever Star to the consignee: Nimbus Export Import at an address in West Nyack, New York, twice more in 2006. Jerold claims that all the invoices and shipping documents relate to legal purchases of new goods.

“Sanjivi was paid dollars equal to the amount of 1,16,37,694 from Kapoor’s account in HSBC in New York," the police report says. Police would not permit Mint to review copies of these transactions.

After another raid in May of 2006, the police say, all that remained of value in Brihadeeswara was the grand (and very heavy) Nataraja and one other idol of Vishnu. To remove these, the thieves would need extra men and a lorry, which villagers guess approached the temple over the dry lake bed, out of view of the village. The final job, it seems, was done by the end of November, when police record another shipment leaving Chennai. It was also around that time that the rumour of the deadly bees began in Sripuranthan; locals suspect the thieves started it.

Dealing in Indian antiquities is inherently risky given that it is generally illegal to export objects older than 100 years out of the country. As Jerold put it: “No one can run a 100% pukka antiques dealership in India."

India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, passed in 1972, states that any privately-owned work of art more than 100 years old must be registered with the government. The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, which was launched in 2007 to register all existing antiquities by 2012, currently lists 800,000 artefacts, according to R.S. Fonia of the Archaeological Survey of India. Fonia wouldn’t comment on the idol thefts.

While temples are supposedly protected by the HR&CE department, it has insufficient resources to carry out such a weighty mandate. “There are 906 temples in Ariyalur district under our control, but our staff consists of only one assistant commissioner, six executive officers and four inspectors," said T. Kodhandaraman, assistant commissioner for Ariyalur district. “Each temple needs to be assigned a night watchman, and the police need to do a patrol every night to check if everything is in order. But that is not being done."

The market for Asian antiquities abroad is robust. Both New York and London now have annual Asian art weeks, as well as frequent auctions in which Indian sculptures feature prominently. Sotheby’s March sale of Indian and South-East Asian works of art was led by a pair of south Indian bronze sculptures of Shiva with his consort Somaskanda from private collections, estimated, though not sold, at $600,000-800,000. Christie’s Indian and South-East Asian sale in March raised $6,329,750. Among its lots were several Indian sculptures, including a rare south Indian bronze figure of Manikkavacakar, from the Vijayanagara Period (circa 15th century), also from a private collection. It sold to an anonymous bidder for $482,500. “In tandem with the rise in the South Asian economy, the market for art of Indian and South-East Asian origin continues to grow ever stronger," said a departmental statement. Christie’s spokespersons declined to comment further.

Kapoor’s case is not the first time that India has seen a smuggling scandal on this scale. In 2003, police in Jaipur arrested businessman Vaman Ghiya, uncovering a vast network of thieves, dealers, middlemen and art experts that formed the largest antiquities smuggling racket in India’s history. Many aspects of Ghiya’s case find echoes in Kapoor’s—the educated, financially liquid patron; the disguising of genuine antiques amid a jumble of fakes; the careful search for disused or unguarded temples. In a story on the Ghiya case for the New Yorker magazine in 2007, Patrick Radden Keefe hinted that a new wave of smugglers might pick up where Ghiya, who was imprisoned for life in 2008, left off. Keefe quoted Anand Srivastava, the police officer who headed the Ghiya case: “This is a very specialized kind of crime. You have to have a lot of taste. You have to read a lot... These new guys, they have taken all the lessons from Ghiya." Srivastava declined to elaborate on these comments to Mint.

In person, Kapoor bears more resemblance to Srivastava’s description than the one drawn by the police. He is 5’8" tall, with a slight paunch, a balding, dome-shaped head, a determined mouth, and intelligent, expressive eyes behind professorial rimless glasses. A divorcee with one daughter, Kapoor’s tax statement for 2011 shows his wage for that year to be $50,000.

Kapoor was born in 1949, in India, and went to school in Delhi. “He did not attend college," said one police officer, “he joined his father’s business directly". Parshotam Ram Kapoor was also in the art trade. In 1974, according to the police, the family moved to the US and, two years later, Subhash opened his Madison Avenue gallery. His brother Ramesh owns another gallery further down Madison Avenue, Kapoor Galleries, which has not been officially linked to the investigation. In an interview with British magazine Apollo in 2009, Subhash Kapoor described how he started collecting: “My father started to buy in 1947 after he moved from Lahore after partition," he said. “He spoke eight or nine languages. Punjab was split in two and the university was in Lahore, in Pakistan. So my father bought old books left behind by Muslims who’d gone to Pakistan and sold them to India’s new Punjab University... From there he got into manuscripts, then paintings. Being Punjabi, he started with Pahari paintings, I was looking at these aged five or six."

After his father died in 2007, Kapoor gave 108 Indian drawings he’d inherited to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of many gifts and endowments he made over the years. The officers of the idol theft wing, however, remain unimpressed by such demonstrations of Kapoor’s largesse. “There’s no difference between him and someone who is stealing iron scrap to sell and make money," one said.

“The punishment is not severe for these kind of crimes," said another investigator. “Even if Kapoor gets convicted, he will be imprisoned for 14 years (a life term), which is definitely not enough. Even if better protection is offered to antiques in India, a determined set of thieves will find a way to steal. Rigorous punishment can be the only deterrent."

The Varadaraja Perumal temple in Suthamalli lost its guardian about 10 years ago, locals estimate. For many years, an old woman called Kalyaniammal had kept watch over the site. “She would sleep there in the hut and wouldn’t let anyone in," said S. Arivazhagan, a farmer, gesturing at a ruined brick structure between the main road and the temple. “She was a little off her mind, but she had the keys; her family were the temple guardians."

Sometime between the early 2000s, when Kalyani left, and 2008, 18 idols were stolen from the Vishnu temple in Suthamali, including some that had been moved there from a nearby Shiva temple, which was in a more advanced state of disrepair. Among them was a particularly fine Nataraja, and a statue of Parvati enshrined in a flaming arch, as well as two voluptuous Sivagamis and a Murugan, which, superficially at least, match descriptions of those found in the raids on Sofia Storage.

The villagers of Sripuranthan worry that even if eight idols are restored to them, they may not be the ones that were taken. “Our stuff has not been branded, what if they exchange other idols for ours?" said Govindarajan. “They can’t ascertain based on the photos we have." In fact, one of the photos of the Brihadeeswara Nataraja bears a striking resemblance to photographs of a Nataraja that the National Gallery of Australia purchased from Kapoor in 2008. The museum says it is reviewing the items it has bought from Kapoor. “Museums are under an ethical duty to conduct due diligence and make sure nothing is looted or stolen, but that doesn’t resolve a lot of questions," said Rick St Hilaire, a New Hampshire-based cultural heritage lawyer, who has followed Kapoor’s case. “The art and antiquities market is very unknown. It’s not really regulated in a meaningful way. In many ways it’s a don’t-ask-questions kind of market."

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Jason Felch, who runs the blog Chasing Aphrodite, which tracks stolen works of art all over the world through online crowd sourcing, agrees. “These acquisitions from Kapoor demonstrate two things," he said, in an email, “that museums and curators continue to buy suspect antiquities, and that such activity is an increasingly high-risk endeavour."

In Suthamalli, however, locals do have one hope. When a photograph distributed by Interpol of a Nataraja in Kapoor’s possession was magnified, police say they noticed an engraving on the pedestal: the word “Suthamalli". Experts have yet to confirm whether this is the case. Another photograph, from the Sofia Storage raid, released by ICE and published by The Hindu newspaper last weekend, shows a statue of Chandikeshwara (a form of Shiva). The Hindu report linked the statue with “a Sundareswara temple in Ariyalur", but an officer at the idol wing said that police are not sure whether the statue was a stolen artefact or legally bought; their photographs are blurred and idols from different temples look frustratingly similar to the untrained eye.

An issue of Arts of Asia magazine for March 2010, contains a picture of Kapoor at Asia Week in New York standing in front of a dancing Shiva and a Parvati, tantalizingly like the ones stolen from Suthamalli. The caption reads: “Gallery owner Subash Kapoor was proud of his rare and important bronze matched pair of the Shiva Nataraja and his consort Uma Paramesvari, Tamil Nadu, Chola Period, 12-13th century." Kapoor is quoted saying: “It is quite amazing that the divine couple have not only survived together as an original set, but also remain in complete state with their flaming prabhas and lotus pedestals." Police hope that the pair are the same two statues that originated in Suthamalli. But the restitution of smuggled art is a notoriously sluggish process, and even if these idols do belong in Ariyalur, it seems unlikely that they will find their way back home to Tamil Nadu, where Kapoor now waits for the policemen of the idol theft wing to produce their charge sheet.


Anupama Chandrasekaran contributed to this story.

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