The Peabody Essex Museum announced on Friday that it is handing over an Indian artwork to the Department of Homeland Security as part of the government’s ongoing investigation into an alleged international art fraud enterprise.
The work, a mid-19th century Tanjore portrait in the Salem museum’s collection, was purchased in 2006 from Subhash Kapoor, museum officials said. Authorities arrested Kapoor in 2011 on charges of trafficking in looted Indian antiquities.
“These situations are not happy, but I believe at the same time that it’s important to make situations like this transparent and publicly known,” said Peabody Essex Museum director Dan L. Monroe, speaking by phone on Friday. “That’s precisely what we’ve done.”
Monroe said the allegations of Kapoor’s art trafficking have created “shock waves” around the world. “It involves a substantial number of art museums, and they’re not just in the US,” he said, adding that he knew of 18 museums with pieces linked to Kapoor in their collections. “I believe there will be a number of works returned.”
Monroe said the Peabody Essex has been working with Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the federal department, since Kapoor’s arrest at the airport in Frankfurt in late 2011.
“We took a proactive role to notify the Department of Homeland Security of all works we had through gift or purchase from Mr. Kapoor,” said Monroe, adding that museum officials met with investigators to discuss the provenance, or ownership history, of the piece, titled “Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjavur and his son Shivaji II.”
“They provided information that certainly confirmed in our mind that this was a work with a fake provenance, and therefore had been illegally sold,” Monroe said.
The Peabody Essex is not the first US museum to voluntarily agree to relinquish a work of art linked to the dealer: Earlier this week the Honolulu Museum of Art returned seven pieces purchased from Kapoor, who is awaiting trial in India.
Luis Martinez, a public affairs officer with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said by phone on Friday from Honolulu that the investigation known as Operation Hidden Idol has already recovered approximately 1,000 items, worth an estimated $150 million, linked to Kapoor. While some of the works are more recent, many are much older, including a second-century BC pillar sculpture valued at nearly $18 million and a 2,000-year-old terra cotta rattle.
“It is the largest seizure that HSI has made from an individual,” said Martinez, who added that investigators have identified approximately 2,000 pieces linked to Kapoor that they suspect were looted. He noted that many of the works are in museums and private collections.
“A lot of these museums are victims themselves,” he said. “They received these works as gifts, or they purchased them from collectors.”
Monroe said Kapoor first established his relationship with the Peabody Essex by donating works to the collection.
“He made several gifts to the museum and then eventually offered works for purchase,” Monroe said. “We had no reason to doubt the provenance or doubt the legitimacy of the sale. We reviewed the provenance and did appropriate due diligence relative to our practices and the practices of the field at the time.”
He added that the Peabody-Essex collection still has “six or seven” of Kapoor’s works, which federal investigators have told the museum do not appear to have been improperly acquired.
“I applaud the Peabody Essex Museum’s decision to assist HSI with our investigation by returning this precious artwork,” said Raymond R. Parmer Jr., special agent in charge at Homeland Security Investigations in New York, in a statement. “I hope their example sets the standard for other institutions that may have inadvertently purchased or received stolen artifacts.”
Monroe said the museum purchased the Tanjore portrait through Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery for $35,000. But with some of the antiquities involved in this investigation, Martinez said, the value is hard to judge.
“For the people affected, it’s a national treasure. Some were religious relics that were looted,” he said. “For them, it’s priceless.”