Of course no museum wants to get a visit from the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Particularly when they inform you that a 2,200-year-old terracotta Indian rattle that has been part of the museum’s extensive collection of South Asian art since 2003 was most likely looted from an archeological site in India.
Museum director Stephan Jost was disappointed when ICE HSI agents contacted the museum on Aug. 22 about the ancient four-inch-long object, which was a gift from antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, whom federal officials call “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.” ICE HSI agents delivered a subpoena asking the museum to hand over the rattle, which they had identified as having been illegally exported from India.
“We’ve had this object on view since it arrived as a gift,” says Jost. “On one hand we’re glad to have been able to share it with our public, on the other hand it’s a no brainer to return it considering its tainted history.”
Kapoor, who owned the New York–based Art of the Past Gallery, sold and donated Asian antiquities to many museums around the world. Now, the law has caught up with Kapoor. He was arrested in Germany on Oct. 30, 2011, and extradited to India on July 14, 2012, to face charges of illegal exportation, criminal conspiracy, and forgery. He is currently awaiting trial.
To move forward in helping with restitution efforts, Honolulu Museum of Art trustees unanimously agreed to deaccession the 2nd-century-BC Indian rattle, and Jost immediately had the object prepared to send to ICE HSI.
The museum is cooperating fully with ICE HSI, and is currently scouring its archive records to see if other objects may have come through Kapoor’s gallery. Curator of Asian art Shawn Eichman has already identified four objects—all currently on view in the museum’s gallery of South Asian art—that were purchased from Kapoor in 1991. “Just because an object was sold to the museum by Kapoor, it does not mean that it was stolen, but it certainly raises red flags,” said Jost. “My guess is we will find out a lot over the next months as the museum partners with ICE HIS to learn more.”
The Honolulu Museum of Art is not alone in working with Kapoor and his gallery. Other museums that own works acquired from Kapoor include the Toledo Museum of Art, Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, the Gallery of New South Wales, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Rattle in the Shape of Kubera
India, c. 200 B.C.
Gift of Art of the Past, in Honor of the 50th Wedding Anniversary of Indru and Gulab Watumull, 2003