Subhash Kapoor: The Biggest Art Thief Alive

In Art Collecting, Art History, News

Headlines over the past year have brought back into prominence a man whose crimes shocked the art world almost a decade ago. His story includes theft, international underground networks, big money, a police investigation, and the glamorous upper echelon of society.

The man? Subhash Kapoor. The crime? The theft of artifacts.

But who is Kapoor? How did he carry out his crimes? And what led to his eventual capture by Interpol in 2011?

Subhash Kapoor, Art Dealer Extraordinaire

Kapoor was an international art dealer who moved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of artifacts around the world. He lived and worked out of New York City, building a career at the top of art dealing and collecting that spanned five decades. As an interesting side note, Kapoor’s father also dealt in art, and he was even named in an art theft case in the 1970’s.

Major institutions purchased work through Kapoor, dozens of museums in the US alone, and he even donated work to the Smithsonian. Not only a dealer to auction houses and iconic museums, Kapoor also sold ancient art directly out of his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past.

His reputation relied on the quality and number of artifacts he was able to procure from Afghanistan, Pakistan, southeast Asia, and a seemingly endless supply from southern India. And it was a reputation that over awed some of the most powerful art institutions in the world.

The Crime

What these institutions, collectors, auction houses, and charities did not know was that Kapoor was selling stolen artifacts with the aid of a global smuggling ring, implicated in the theft of artifacts calculated in the hundreds of millions.

The web of connections and sophisticated organization necessary to carry off his crimes are vast. And he managed to evade authorities for decades, carrying stolen goods across multiple borders, managing to evade discovery for years. He was so successful that Interpol called him the world’s biggest commodity smuggler at the time of his arrest.

But how exactly did he do it?

Kapoor was in contact with looters around the world. These looters would scout out secluded temples and take pictures of pieces. Then, unsavory art dealers like Kapoor bid on the items using social media platforms.

These stolen artifacts were openly shipped across the seas to the lucky auction winners. After landing in the US, the goods were handed over to art restorers who cleaned the pieces to make them appear legal.

Now clean, Kapoor’s gallery manager forged documents, creating what is called false provenance, to complete the process. Once in Kapoor’s possession, he would loan or sell his loot to museums.

The scale is truly enormous. At his arrest, his storage facilities contained over $100 million worth of stolen artifacts, with tens of millions worth of artifacts still to be tracked down.

He did all of it directly under the noses of people trained to detect exactly the crime he was committing. Museums that purchase artifacts have experts on hand to investigate all purchases. This ensures that the institution does not handle stolen work, important when you consider the enormous price tags on these items and the long term cultural cost to the peoples who are looted.

And yet, in many cases, Kapoor would sell items to museums that were well known and that most experts could be expected to track down as stolen. Many of Kapoor’s wares were well documented, not obscure pieces.

That institutional failure hints at the secret to some of Kapoor’s success: his buyers weren’t deeply invested in preventing his crimes.

How Subhash Kapoor Was Caught

With such brazen theft at such staggering scale, it was only a matter of time until Kapoor would meet justice.

Interpol arrested Kapoor in a German airport in 2011 after his passport was flagged at security. It was India’s Central Bureau of Investigation who sounded the alarm to Interpol after receiving a report from the Tamil Nadu police.

The Tamil Nadu region of India has a police division devoted entirely to the theft of artifacts, called the Idol Wing. They caught several looters in the act, one of whom admitted to working with renowned art collector and dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The year following his arrest, Kapoor was sent to Chennai, India for trial.

Impact

Kapoor faces charges in India from a legal process that has gone on for years, as well as many lawsuits filed by various museums that purchased stolen art from him. After he receives his sentence in India, he will have to come to New York City where he will go on trial yet again.

Several museums that were implicated — including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Honolulu Museum of art, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Met — have done internal investigations to find pieces in their collection that arrived through Kapoor. Those that were determined to be stolen have since been given back to their countries of origin.

But as stated before, there are still countless unaccounted for artifacts thought to be owned by Kapoor. Some $36 million worth, in fact.

The greater impact of Kapoor’s crimes, however, is the reminder to the art world how much theft still goes on today. Seen as a crime of a colonial age long past, the stealing of holy artifacts and their sale to Western museums is an injustice that continues today.

And it is worth remembering that Kapoor did not act alone. It took a large network of specialists to help him carry out his crimes, and the institutions that purchased the art appear more interested in broadening their prestiges collections than protecting foreign cultures from theft.

By the numbers, Subhash Kapoor is the biggest art thief alive, but as long as the systemic issues are not fixed, there will always be another Kapoor waiting in the wings.