Investigators in Manhattan returned 248 ancient icons valued at $15 million to India on Thursday and said they hoped to have the art dealer accused of looting most of them back in New York for trial by early next year.
The dealer, Subhash Kapoor, 72, former owner of the Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue, has been jailed in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu since 2011. Authorities there are prosecuting him on charges of theft, smuggling and trafficking in connection with more than 2,500 South Asian antiquities, many of which they have identified as stolen from impoverished village shrines where they had been objects of veneration for centuries.
“We expect a lengthy trial and have the case fully prepared,” said J.P. Labbat, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who has been working on the Kapoor case, known as Operation Hidden Idol, for more than a decade. He said that regardless of the verdict in India, officials would move to extradite Mr. Kapoor, who is an American citizen, to face trial here on trafficking and other charges.
The objects returned on Thursday to the Indian consulate in New York included 235 artworks seized from Kapoor’s storage units and 13 surrendered by other parties during related investigations. With those returns, officials with Homeland Security and the Manhattan district attorney’s office say they have handed back 255 objects to India and another 261 to 12 other nations, including 149 to Pakistan, 33 to Afghanistan, 27 to Cambodia and 13 to Thailand since August of 2020.
The Kapoor case has been one of the largest prosecutions for dealing in illicit antiquities in the United States, involving eight defendants and leading to five convictions for criminal possession of stolen property, fraud and other charges between 2013 and this year.
In explaining the length of time Mr. Kapoor has already been in jail, his New York lawyer, Georges G. Lederman, said criminal defendants in India can be detained before trial for up to half the length of the potential maximum sentence if convicted. Mr. Kapoor, who is being held at Trichi Central Jail in Tiruchirapalli, 200 miles south of Chennai, went on trial earlier this year. The prosecution has rested, Mr. Lederman said, and in the coming weeks the defense will begin presenting its case.
Among those who have been convicted in the United States in connection to the case here are Kapoor’s sister, Sushma Sareen, and a former girlfriend, SelinaMohamed, who were both accused of hiding items during the course of the investigation, and two art restorers, Neil Perry Smith, who was extradited from London, and Richard Salmon of Brooklyn, both accused of cleaning and repairing stolen statues and sculptures to remove signs of looting so they would appear to have been in legitimate collections for decades.
The items returned on Thursday, officials said, included a bronze statue of the Hindu god Shiva in a pose of divine dance, from the 12th Century and valued at $4 million; a bronze figure of Shiva Bhikshatana dating to the 16th century and valued at $437,500; and a copper alloy figure of Adikara Nandi dating to the 17th century, measuring 20 inches high and valued at $30,000 to $50,000.
“These ceremonies are always very touching and you can really feel the extreme joy and gratitude, whether it’s a $4 million item or a $4 item,” Mr. Labbat said. “It’s the best part of what we do.”