U.S. Returns Trove of Looted Antiquities to Pakistan

U.S. authorities returned to Pakistan 104 artifacts that were among thousands of antiquities looted from Asian countries and seized from New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said last week.

“Hopefully soon these artifacts will be displayed in Pakistani museums,” Pakistan’s Consul General Ayesha Ali said. (Source: Manhattan DA)“Hopefully soon these artifacts will be displayed in Pakistani museums,” Pakistan’s Consul General Ayesha Ali said. (Photo: Manhattan District Attorney's Office)Kapoor, who ran a swanky art dealership on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, specializing in South and Central Asian antiques, had long been pursued by New York authorities on suspicion that much of his stock was illegally acquired.

Though Kapoor was ultimately arrested in India and is currently languishing in a Chennai prison, authorities in New York found as many as 2,500 artifacts, valued at over US$100 million, in his collection that were believed to have been looted or trafficked.

So far some 497 of those have been repatriated to 11 countries.

“With every repatriation there is a new joy and satisfaction that goes with returning a piece of history to its home country,” said Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent in Charge of HSI New York. “Each pilfered artifact tells its own story, as each line or scratch retells its journey and with this being the final chapter – going home.”

Among those 104 artifacts being returned to Pakistan were a ceremonial casket and two bodhisattva statues dating from between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. 

“This magnificent collection of artifacts returned to the people of Pakistan today epitomizes that nation’s rich cultural heritage and humanity’s never-ending quest for enlightenment and peace,” said District Attorney Vance. “It also evinces the importance of all collectors and gallery owners performing due diligence and ensuring all pieces they purchased were lawfully acquired.”

The illegal antiquities trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry according to a 2018 report by Standard Charter Bank, and it’s 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 last May.

The looting of cultural property from active war zones is considered a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention.

“Hopefully soon these artifacts will be displayed in Pakistani museums,” Pakistan’s Consul General Ayesha Ali said.