Following the seizure of a massive trove of Asian artifacts smuggled into the U.S. by a New York-based art dealer, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington has started working with U.S. authorities to repatriate more than $3 million worth of Cambodian antiquities, an embassy official said Tuesday.
After a two-yearlong investigation, the Manhattan district attorney’s office last week issued a summons for dealer Subhash Kapoor, who stands accused of smuggling more than $100 million worth of stolen antiquities into the U.S.
Dozens of Cambodian artifacts worth more than $3 million were found in Mr. Kapoor’s Manhattan art gallery, Art of the Past, and his various storage spaces, according to an inventory of the items seized by U.S. authorities.
Lam Pachapor, chief of mission at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, said Tuesday that the embassy had begun to work on the case with the U.S. State Department and Cambodia’s mission to the U.N., but declined to say whether an official claim to repatriate the items had been made.
“I am trying to work right now with the Department of State and it is still in process,” Ms. Pachapor said. “We try to work as best and as fast [as] we can. We don’t have anything yet. We are working,” she added.
According to the summons, Mr. Kapoor stands accused of crimes including criminal possession of stolen property, conspiracy and money laundering. It says that Mr. Kapoor used falsified letters of authenticity and fabricated histories of ownership to sell hundreds of ar-tifacts believed to have been recently—and illegally—taken out of their countries of origin.
“Many of these antiquities were described as ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ antiquities which in the trade means that they were newly discovered and recently removed from the ground, temple or site where they were found,” the summons says.
In the inventory, many of the Cambodian items are said to have entered the U.S. after 2005. The highest valued Cambodian artifact on the list, a Naga statue worth $1.2 million, was imported to the U.S. after 2007.
In an interview last week, James Dinkins, former executive associate director of the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who worked on the investigation into Mr. Kapoor’s smuggling, known as Operation Hidden Idol, said the art dealer had been running a vast criminal network.
“You would have a looting organization, a transportation organization, a restoration organization, and a sales and distribution organization,” Mr. Dinkins said.
As far as looting goes, Mr. Kapoor hired locals, usually in remote and sparsely populated areas, to do the dirty work, Mr. Dinkins said.
“He would pay people to go out with a grocery list of items they thought would be of value and interest to his customers,” he said. “Depending on the size of the items, they would decide how to go in and out of different borders.”
To cross borders, items were either mislabeled as souvenirs or replicas, or even concealed inside clods of earth, Mr. Dinkins said.
“Let’s say if it was a sculpture they were excavating out of the ground, sometimes they would take the entire dirt area, and move a big cube of dirt, put it in a crate and ship it as is,” he explained.
“Sometimes they [would] cut an artifact in half to be able to conceal it, and then restore it upon arrival in whatever country it was sold at. But each one is going to have its own journey and history,” he said.
Mr. Dinkins said the process of smuggling the artifacts from their home countries to eventual buyers could take months or even years.
“Sometimes they would make journeys back and forth from different countries. From one country in Europe to another country in Europe, just waiting for a potential buyer or for some type of restoration,” Mr. Dinkins said, adding that New York City is the most common point of entry in the U.S. for black-market artifacts from Asia.
Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s country representative in Cambodia, said she had been unaware of the new trove of artifacts found in New York, but that she was beginning an investigation into the case. Speaking generally about the challenges that Cambodia faces in protecting its artifacts from smuggling, Ms. Lemaistre said that closely monitoring temples in remote areas is not always feasible.
“Three thousand sites with archaeological remains exist in the whole country. So it is among the richest archaeological countries in the world,” Ms. Lemaistre said.
“In the case of Angkor, it is evident that it is looked after, but for minor temples not known to the general public but known by experts, it’s complicated to look after.”
© 2015, Maria Paula Brito. All rights reserved.