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The National Gallery of Australia dances into trouble with Shiva

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Rachel Kleinman and Amrit Dhillon

How did the National Gallery of Australia dig itself into a hole after buying an ancient bronze statue of dubious provenance from an antiquities dealer?

Alleged smuggler of Indian antiquities Subhash Kapoor is escorted into court last Tuesday.

Alleged smuggler of Indian antiquities Subhash Kapoor is escorted into court last Tuesday.

As the trial of disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor gets under way in the southern Indian town of Chennai, the policeman who has been hunting him for years hopes Kapoor will spend the next 14 years in jail - the maximum sentence for smuggling antiquities (in his case, allegedly hundreds of them) out of India.

Ashok Natarajan, chief investigating officer of the ''Idol Wing'' of Tamil Nadu Police, calls Kapoor, who has pleaded not guilty, a glib talker who deserves everything he gets. ''He was ruthless in stripping Tamil Nadu of artefacts that represent the height of artistic splendour in my state,'' he says.

We did everything that was humanly possible, and if we are a victim of fraud, then we will act. - Ron Radford, NGA director. 

The trial began on March 7 but was promptly adjourned until Friday. Museum directors around the world, including Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, will be watching it carefully to learn more about the man who it seems conned the NGA and whose life reads like an Agatha Christie novel.

The statue of Shiva Nataraja for which the National Gallery of Australia paid $5 million.

The statue of Shiva Nataraja for which the National Gallery of Australia paid $5 million.

Radford will be watching because Kapoor's alleged art smuggling ring, spanning three continents, has embroiled two of Australia's top galleries in one of the country's biggest art scandals in decades.

Controversially, the 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva at the centre of the scandal here is still on view at the NGA, even as court cases in India and the US try to establish how it ended up in the hands of the gallery's curators. Visitors are being kept in the dark about the murky past of the majestic $5 million deity.

Duncan Chappell, a University of Sydney criminologist who specialises in art crime, has repeatedly criticised the gallery's handling of the affair.

Director of the National Gallery Ron Radford.

Director of the National Gallery Ron Radford. Photo: Jay Cronan

''To prominently display [the statue] without any explanation of its doubtful provenance is not appropriate. They should either remove it entirely or put up an explanatory note,'' he says. ''It is a very unsatisfying situation that compounds what is already an international embarrassment over this matter.''

The Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, is one of 21 items the gallery purchased over several years from Kapoor. The gallery spent $11 million on its transactions with Kapoor and his prestigious Madison Avenue dealership Art of the Past in New York.

The Art Gallery of NSW also bought artefacts from Kapoor, as did museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum New York, Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

The NSW gallery acquired six pieces from Kapoor's dealership between 1994 and 2004, at least some of which are believed to be stolen. Two sculptures remain on display.

The case raises a host of thorny questions for the local galleries involved, in particular about their due diligence processes when acquiring a work of art. (The Art Gallery of NSW says its director, Michael Brand, reviewed the gallery's acquisitions policy when he joined the gallery in 2012.)

Stephen Nall, a lawyer and art consultant, is campaigning for an Australian equivalent to the London-based Art Loss Register, an international database of stolen or missing art.

He would also like the register widened to cover other art crimes such as fakes and forgeries. A register, he says, could reduce the chances of Australia's prestigious galleries being duped again in further embarrassing scams.

From his Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan, Kapoor posed as a connoisseur of Indian art for three decades, attending swish parties and gallery openings. What no one knew, according to charges laid by Tamil Nadu police, was that the suave cognoscente was the mastermind of an international antiquities smuggling ring that sold stolen or fake artefacts to the tune of $100 million.

One such object was the famous bronze statue from the 9th-13th-century Chola dynasty depicting Shiva in a ring of fire, which Kapoor sold to the NGA for $5 million in 2008. These sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses are renowned for the exquisite sensuousness of the human form. Made especially for temples, they are the pride of Tamil Nadu.

Jaws in museums around the world dropped the day Kapoor was arrested at Frankfurt airport in 2011 after an Interpol alert by India. Over the eight months it took to extradite Kapoor to Chennai, details of his smuggling empire emerged and worst fears were confirmed.

First, American police raids of his warehouses in New York unearthed stolen antiquities worth an estimated $90 million. Some of the objects in the warehouse were so huge they required a truck to themselves to be transported into custody.

Police were stunned by the breadth of Kapoor's operations. ''We [usually] see an individual collector or an individual broker with a handful of pieces,'' New York special agent James Hayes told GQ magazine. ''I haven't seen, up until now, somebody who has basically created a black-market Sotheby's.''

Natarajan and his team then began piecing together the pieces in the jigsaw to understand Kapoor's modus operandi. ''The local idol thieves who supplied Kapoor used to break into temples and steal the idols, sometimes from poorly guarded temples, sometimes from old, dilapidated temples,'' says Natarajan.

''Some were almost in ruins and only opened on very special occasions. Villagers didn't even realise the idols were missing until much later. By then, they had been shipped illegally to New York.''

Police say Kapoor's gang would make replicas of the idols to make it look as though all the pieces in the container were merely copies. They would mix handicrafts with them to fool customs officials.

The paperwork - purchase bills and certification - was all forged, according to the police. They say when it came to selling the works later, Kapoor created false ownership histories to fool museum officials. Museums rely on these documents to prove the provenance of an object.

Kapoor's alleged accomplices in Manhattan were his sister Sushma Sareen and the office manager at his gallery, Aaron Freedman. The latter pleaded guilty to six criminal charges in the New York Supreme Court last December, including stealing the Shiva that was bought by the NGA. Sareen has denied the four counts of criminal possession of stolen property against her and is out on bail.

Kapoor's other alleged accomplice was his girlfriend Paramaspry Punusamy, who is based in Singapore. Media reports say a lovers' tiff prompted Punusamy, an art dealer herself, to betray Kapoor. Their 10-year relationship had reportedly soured after Kapoor accused her of stealing his art.

Far from the bright lights of Manhattan, Kapoor is at present sharing a cramped, stuffy cell and surviving on rice and watery gruel at Puzhal jail in Chennai. A diabetic, he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer by jail doctors.

Meanwhile, art experts in India are mystified as to how the NGA and other renowned galleries and museums could have been apparently duped by Kapoor. Most people in the art world know that a 1972 Indian law states that any object over 100 years old must be registered - so that its location is always known - and cannot be exported. (Though the very fact of the police Idol Wing's existence indicates the law has been broken by thieves and smugglers).

Yet, despite his artefacts not being registered with any Indian government body, and despite the fact that Kapoor was not a government representative, the museums dealt with him.

The NGA last month launched action through New York's Supreme Court, suing Kapoor and Art of the Past for $5 million plus legal fees and costs. The NGA has tendered documents as part of its court action. It says the documents - proffered by Kapoor as evidence of the Shiva statue's provenance - showed that a Sudanese diplomat had bought it in 1971.

The biggest charge the gallery faces is that its due diligence failed during the acquisition of the Dancing Shiva.

Ron Radford told Lateline : ''We did everything that was humanly possible, and if we are a victim of fraud, then we will act. The negotiations went on for a year as we were testing whether it had been stolen from anywhere or its provenance and we were checking all of that with great thoroughness. We went through about eight different processes before we bought it.''

Says Chappell: ''Their whole review process of the affair was questionable. The director himself [Ron Radford] was in charge of the review even though he was up to his own eyeballs in the whole acquisition process. It should have been an external neutral person in charge [of the review].''

Despite the NGA's court action against Kapoor, Radford told the ABC recently that he was not yet convinced the piece was looted. Asked on Lateline whether the statue was stolen, Radford replied: ''No, I think it is by no means clear yet. There are a lot of stories floating round. I think we just have to wait for the outcome of the courts in that regard.''

But Natarajan says that even a cursory check of the Idol Wing's website in 2008 would have shown information about the Shiva being stolen.

''There are about nine identical points. It's damaged in the same places. No two idols can be so alike. Pardon my language, but even an idiot can see it is the same piece and we have written to the Australian authorities listing all the similarities.''

Chappell is also scathing about Radford's stance. ''[Kapoor's] office manager has already pleaded guilty to forging the provenance, so what more proof do they want? If they're not satisfied it's stolen, why is [the gallery] taking legal action in the first place?''

Further confusion surrounds whether the statue will be returned to its home in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. NGA director of communications David Edghill says this would ''normally be a government-to-government process''.

If the Australian government receives a formal request from its Indian counterpart, it will respond appropriately under international cultural heritage laws and the gallery will co-operate, Edghill says.

The office of federal Attorney-General George Brandis says no such contact has yet been made.

But Chappell says that while there is a formal government repatriation process, the gallery does not have to rely on that to do the right thing. ''There are many instances from recent times when major galleries like the Getty have voluntarily repatriated items. They don't have to wait for that formal process.''

Meanwhile the NGA says it has since begun a detailed internal review of the provenance and due diligence relating to all 22 works of art bought through Kapoor. It says while Chappell is an expert in his field he has not contacted the gallery and has no direct knowledge of the gallery's acquisition processes of the works in question.

In Hindu mythology, the Nataraja is an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the powerful deity of creation and destruction. It remains to be seen how many more reputations will be destroyed before the full story of this Nataraja's past is revealed.

Amrit Dhillon is based in Delhi. Rachel Kleinman is a Melbourne journalist.

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