Met Museum: 15 of 77 stolen Indian artefacts returned to India

The Indian Express uncovered the stolen items in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the UK-based Finance Uncovered

'Woman with a Parrot' from The Met (Photo courtesy @wiavastukala/Twitter)
'Woman with a Parrot' from The Met (Photo courtesy @wiavastukala/Twitter)

NH Web Desk

An investigative report published by the Indian Express revealed that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art—affectionately known worldwide as 'The Met'—had in its collection at least 77 Indian artefacts linked to jailed smuggler Subhash Kapoor. The museum has said that 15 of those artefacts have now been returned to India.

On March 15, the Indian Express published a report on 486 Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) antiquities missing from India since 1947. The report was published in association with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the UK-based Finance Uncovered.

'Since Independence, only 486 antiquities have been reported as missing from the 3,696 monuments protected and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), including 139 from Madhya Pradesh, 95 from Rajasthan and 86 from Uttar Pradesh, according to records accessed by The Indian Express under the Right To Information (RTI) Act,' the report said.

'While these are still missing, the RTI records also show that 305 antiquities have been brought back to India from abroad since 1976, including 292 since 2014. However, as the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Transport, Tourism and Culture points out, these numbers may just be "the tip of the iceberg",' the Indian Express report added.

The Met Museum's director Max Hollein issued a statement earlier this month that “last month, in light of new provenance information, we returned 15 works to India, including the Celestial Dancer, a sculpture that enraptured visitors for decades".

On March 30, the Met issued a statement saying it would “transfer 15 sculptures for return to the government of India, after having learned that the works were illegally removed from India”. It said that all of the works were sold at one point by Subhash Kapoor, a dealer currently serving a prison sentence in India.

Of the 15 items listed in the search warrant, 10 were flagged in the Indian Express report published on March 15. They include the Celestial Dancer, a 1st century BCE yakshi terracotta from West Bengal; a bronze sculpture of the god Revanta Returning from the Hunt (10th century CE); and a 15th century parikara (backplate).

Shiva Chandrasekhara idol stolen from Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur. This item is not part of the Met collection, but was found in the US by homeland security. (Photo courtesy  @monidipadey/Twitter)
Shiva Chandrasekhara idol stolen from Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur. This item is not part of the Met collection, but was found in the US by homeland security. (Photo courtesy @monidipadey/Twitter)

“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organisation that works to stop the trafficking of cultural heritage, told ICIJ. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”

Subhash Kapoor has dealt with stolen antiquities across the world. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced the return of 192 antiquities valued at nearly $3.4 million to Pakistan in November last year, Art News reported.

“Subhash Kapoor was one of the world’s most prolific antiquities traffickers, yet thanks to the work of our dedicated investigators and analysts, we have been able to recover thousands of pieces looted by his network,” District attorney Alvin L. Bragg had said in a statement at the time.  

Between 2011 and 2022, the DA’s Office and Homeland Security investigations had recovered more than 2,500 items illegally acquired and sold by Kapoor and his network, the DA’s office said, estimating the total value of the recovered items at more than US$143 million.

Further, more than a dozen artefacts linked to Kapoor were seized from Yale’s art gallery in March last year by Homeland Security. Twelve of the thirteen artefacts were allegedly looted from India, and one item originated from Burma. The artefacts have been valued collectively at $1.29 million, according to officials. 

In July 2021, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra said that it will return 14 works from its Asian art collection objects to India. Thirteen of them were purchased from Art of the Past, the Manhattan gallery led by Kapoor. According to National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich, the 14 objects being returned are collectively valued at $3 million. Among them are six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard known as an alam, a painted scroll and six photographs.

In June 2021, more than two dozen looted artefacts (estimated to be worth $3.8 million) were returned to Cambodia by Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance, Jr. Among the objects returned were statues of Shiva and the Buddha, as well as artefacts dating back to Cambodia’s Angkor era, which lasted from the 9th to the 15th century. These were all connected to Kapoor.

Subhash Kapoor was given a 10-year sentence in Kumbakonam, India last year.

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