The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra said on Thursday 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 Subhash Kapoor, who has been accused of leading a trafficking ring that looted thousands of artifacts. The remaining one was bought from the late New York–based dealer William Wolff.
Three more works are also being deaccessioned by the museum, and they may also head back to India once their provenances have been reviewed.
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.
It is not the first time the museum has returned works that were bought via Kapoor. In 2014, the National Gallery returned to India a bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja that was acquired from Kapoor. Later that year, the museum launched its Asian Art Provenance Project to help identify the origins of objects in its collection. In 2016, two sculptures acquired through Kapoor left the museum’s holdings for India, as did three more in 2019.
“Following this action, along with the repatriation of works in 2014, 2016 and 2019, the National Gallery will no longer hold any works acquired through Subhash Kapoor in its collection,” the museum said in a statement. “The decision to return the works is the culmination of years of research, due diligence and an evolving framework for decision-making that includes both legal principles and ethical considerations.”
Kapoor was arrested in 2011 and is currently in jail in India awaiting trial. He is subject to an extradition request from the Manhattan District Attorney, which in 2019 charged Kapoor with 86 criminal counts of grand larceny, possession of stolen property, and conspiracy to defraud.
He is accused of having looted thousands of artifacts hailing from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and other countries. More than 2,000 trafficked artifacts have been seized from storage locations Kapoor rented throughout New York, though the whereabouts of most of the looted works that allegedly passed through his hands remain unknown.
The operation allegedly involved art dealers in Hong Kong and Singapore and art restorers in Brooklyn and London, many whom now face similar charges. Just last week, one such restorer was charged in New York with possessing 22 stolen objects valued at $32 million.
The Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, said he welcomed the museum’s decision to return the artifacts. “The Government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” he said in a statement. “These are outstanding pieces. Their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India.”