US Charges British Art Restorer for Role in Antiquities Trafficking Ring

A British national was extradited to the United States on Tuesday and charged for his role in the decades-long smuggling operation of Subhash Kapoor, a New York art dealer who specialized in looted antiquities from Central and Southeast Asia. 

Among the items Smith restored was an 11th century Khmer “Naga Buddha” statue. Among the items Smith restored was an 11th century Khmer “Naga Buddha” statue. (Source: Manhattan DA)Neil Perry Smith, 58, was charged in New York for possessing and restoring 22 stolen artifacts, valued at over US$32 million, concealing their illicit origin so that Kapoor could sell them in his now-closed Manhattan gallery, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said.

New York Authorities had long pursued Kapoor, and have slowly been repatriating some of the more than 2,500 looted artifacts they confiscated when they shut down his Manhattan dealership. 

As an art restorer, Smith was an essential part of Kapoor’s operation according to the Manhattan DA. 

“Smith’s restorations helped Kapoor mislead potential buyers about the origin and condition of looted antiquities so that Kapoor could, in turn, capitalize on this veneer of legitimacy by dramatically increasing values,” the statement said.

“Without restorers to disguise stolen relics, there would be no laundered items for antiquities traffickers to sell,” Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance added.

Among the items Smith restored was an 11th century Khmer “Naga Buddha” statue, which had been shattered into 50 pieces. Kapoor ultimately sold it for $1.2 million. 

The existence of restorers such as Smith, or the Brooklyn-based Richard Salmon, who has also been indicted for his work with Kapoor, offered encouragement to smugglers to destroy or deface priceless historical artifacts so that they could be moved more easily across borders. 

While Smith, Salmon and another member of Kapoor’s operation are being tried in the United States, Kapoor has been languishing in a jail cell in Chennai, India, since his 2012 arrest. 

The illegal antiquities trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry, according to a 2018 report by Standard Charter Bank. Its beneficiaries are not just high society art aficionados like Kapoor and his Manhattan clients, but often the trade is a major funding source for criminal and militant groups on the supply side.

“You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons. We know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money,” said Catherine de Bolle, Executive Director of Europol after a major crackdown on the illegal antiquities trade in May, 2020.