Back in September we reported that a special agent from Homeland Security paid the museum a visit. He informed director Stephan Jost 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. HSI had been alerted to the work by a museum visitor who saw on the object’s label that it had been a gift from the Art of the Past, a gallery owned by art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations. Kapoor is at the center of HSI’s ongoing case that they call Operation Hidden Idol.

Over the last three years, HSI special agents have executed a series of federal search warrants targeting Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery, along with a warehouse and storage facility linked to the dealer. Additionally, three individuals have been arrested in the U.S. for their role in the scheme. The estimated value of the artifacts seized so far in the case exceeds $100 million.

Following HSI’s intial visit to the museum, the board of trustees immediately approved handing over the work to Homeland Security and to cooperate in every way possible. Asian art staff began research to see if any other works in the collection came to the museum through Kapoor. They identified six additional works, and last Wednesday the museum officially handed all seven over to HSI agents to be flown to New York where they will serve as potential evidence in Operation Hidden Idol. They’re being kept at what HSI calls “the Fortress,” a climate-controlled, high-security facility in Queens. Ultimately it is anticipated the items will be forfeited and repatriated to India.

Wayne Wills, special agent in charge for HSI Honolulu; Brenton Easter, HSI special agent who has overseen the case; the HSI Honolulu special agent who first identified the rattle in our gallery and oversaw coordination with the museum (he has to remain anonymous as he is still working undercover); and Lou Martinez, of the office of public affairs for DHS/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York arrived at the museum Wednesday morning. Easter and the special agent who will remain unnamed sat down with our Asian art curator Shawn Eichman to go over paperwork itemizing the seven artworks, and discussed the ongoing issue of looted artwork and the art market. The the HSI team was led to the museum’s subterranean packing room, where three of the works were already carefully cocooned—but still visible— in a crate handcrafted by chief preparator Marc Thomas. The crate and its packing materials were meticulously labeled with instructions on how to unpack the artworks.

HSI special agents verify the artworks being handed over.

HSI special agents verify the artworks being handed over.

Easter said that many of the items can be traced to one of India’s richest archeological regions, Chandraketugarh. “We have good information that this site had been pillaged and ravaged in the 1980s and 1990s. The rattle came to our attention from a source who had been here at the museum on vacation and saw it. He pointed to one of the works and said it may have been taken from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while another may be from a sacred Buddhist site. “So they’re very important.”

HSI special agent Brenton Easter talks about the artworks and Operation Hidden Idol with reporters.

HSI special agent Brenton Easter talks about the artworks and Operation Hidden Idol with reporters.

Easter and his colleagues examined the seven items, and Thomas proceeded to carefully wrap and pack the four works not yet in the crated. Museum director Stephan Jost signed an HSI seizure form, and Thomas sealed the crates, which were rolled to HSI’s awaiting truck. This all happened with reporters, photographers and cameramen from all of Hawai‘i’s major news outlets covering the event.

The museum receives no compensation for turning over the artwork—”it’s just the right thing to do,” says Jost. “Looting is a serious problem in the art market and all buyers of art, including museums, need to be mindful that some antiquities have been illegally obtained. “Over the past several years, American art museums have become progressively more rigorous in vetting the history of objects they acquire. Clearly the museum could have done better in the past. We hope that bringing attention to this problem and doing the right thing will help reduce looting of cultural objects. Partnering with HSI is the most effective way to combat this ongoing issue.”

“I can’t thank the museum enough for their cooperation in this case,” said Easter. “Many major international museums own works from Subhash Kapoor, and we hope that the Honolulu Museum of Art’s example will blaze the way for other institions to come forward.”

Two days later, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which has been working with HSI since 2011, announced that it will hand over a 19th-century painting it secured from Kapoor.

See the Associated Press story on this event.

See KITV’s story on this event.

Special agent Brenton Easter talks about the case and artworks as director Stephan Jost and curator of Asian art Shawn Eichman look on.

Special agent Brenton Easter talks about the case and artworks as director Stephan Jost and curator of Asian art Shawn Eichman look on.

Chief preparator Marc Thomas carefully wraps objects under the watchful eyes of HSI special agents

Chief preparator Marc Thomas carefully wraps objects under the watchful eyes of HSI special agents

Marc Thomas (right) and Installations crew member Spencer Donre seal one of the two crates headed to New York City. one

Marc Thomas (right) and Installations crew member Spenson Donre seal one of the two crates headed to New York City.

Museum director Stephan Jost being interviewed by CBS News

Museum director Stephan Jost being interviewed by CBS News

Marc Thomas and Spender Donre pack up the second crate headed for New York City.

Marc Thomas and Spenson Donre pack up the second crate headed for New York City.

 

HSI special agents and museum staff wheel the crates to HSI's awaiting truck.

HSI special agents and museum staff wheel the crates to HSI’s awaiting truck.

HSI agents secure the crates in the truck.

HSI agents secure the crates in the truck.

Hawaii News Now's Chris Tanaka interviews Wayne Wills, special agent in charge for HSI Honolulu.

Hawaii News Now’s Chris Tanaka interviews Wayne Wills, special agent in charge for HSI Honolulu.

The seven artworks are:

Plaque of a Yakshi (Female Nature Spirit)
India, Bengal, 3rd-2nd century BC
Terracotta
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Christian H. Aall, 1994
(7624.1)

Anonymous
Plaque of a Yakshi (Female Nature Spirit)
India, West Bengal, Shunga period, 3rd-2nd century BC
Terracotta
Purchase, Jhamandas Watumull Fund, 1991
(6189.1)

Anonymous
Female Figure
India, Maurya period, c. 320-200 BC
Terracotta
Purchase, Academy’s Volunteer Fund, 1991
(6184.1)

Anonymous
Tile with Stylized Floral Motifs
India, Kashmir, 4th-5th century
Terracotta
Gift of Subash Kapoor, 1994
(7630.1)

Anonymous
Architectural Fragment
India, Andra Pradesh, c. 3rd century
Limestone
Purchase, Jhamandas Watumull Fund, 1991
(6188.1)

Anonymous
Male Deity
India, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, c. 12th century
Red sandstone
Purchase, Jhamandas Watumull Fund, 1991
(6190.1)

Anonymous
Rattle in the Shape of Kubera
India, West Bengal, c. 200 BC
Terracotta
Gift of Art of the Past, in Honor of the 50th Wedding Anniversary of Indru and Gulab Watumull, 2003
(12393.1)