Arts

Looking for a Stolen Idol? Visit the Museum of the Manhattan D.A.

The evidence lockers at the Manhattan district attorney’s office often hold an array of items that figured in the crimes it prosecutes.

Blunt instruments. Sacks of heroin. Wads of cash. The kinds of things that shouldn’t be dropped, but no one would have a heart attack if you did.

And then there are the 2,281 fragile, invaluable and often museum-worthy art objects — statues, sculptures, relics of ancient civilizations — that the office has seized and now must care for.

Here, a bronze idol from India priced at $2 million. There, a vase from Italy made 300 years before the birth of Christ.

“We’ve all gotten pretty good at packing,” said Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant district attorney who directs the 14-person unit that seized it all. “It’s one thing to pack a bronze or sandstone statue — it’s another to pack an 2,500-year-old Apulian vase that already has a crack down the side. That is absolutely nerve-racking, and we look at each other and say, ‘We need more Bubble Wrap and more blankets.’”

Bogdanos’s crew, known officially as the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, is very much a victim of its own success. Set up in 2017, with the approval of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to curb the smuggling of cultural heritage, it has seized 3,604 illicit items valued at $204 million. Of that, 1,323 objects have been returned to countries of origin like Mexico, Afghanistan and Tibet.

Still, that leaves a lot of very nice stuff to watch over.

“It does catch my attention,” Vance said, “that we have some extraordinarily important pieces of art and patrimony we need to secure carefully, and that’s not something most offices have to worry about.”

The Antiquities Trafficking Unit with the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., from left: Apsara Iyer, Vance, Matthew Bogdanos and Mallory O’Donoghue.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Key to the operation are five analysts who sort, curate and conserve the collection and have educational and professional pedigrees that make them just as comfortable in the world of culture as criminology.

Apsara Iyer, for example, is an expert in cultural heritage with degrees from Yale and Oxford; her five languages include Hindi and Spanish. Mallory O’Donoghue holds a master’s of science in art history from Glasgow University and once worked at the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

They help with investigations but also manage “the collection,” which is held in two on-site rooms for smaller items like Etruscan amphoras and Hindu icons, and a larger off-site area for massive objects like Assyrian and Khmer statuary.

Objects are labeled, code-coded and categorized based on their legal case and subdivided into wings and sections. Some of the wings are named after the accused traffickers whose items were seized — Kapoor, Wiener, Medici. Other sections are devoted to countries — India, Cambodia, Iraq, Greece and Italy.

“What we have in our possession is truly extraordinarily and truly in breadth and depth and quality and quantity greater than many museums around the country,” said Bogdanos.

So can academics and archaeologists who have learned of the office’s startling holdings come over to study them first hand? Nope. No visitors, said Bogdanos.

“It’s an honor and a privilege,” he said, “but it’s also evidence.”

Here are eight of the artifacts, to which The New York Times was given access, with information about their seizure, their significance and their place in the cultural history of their countries of origin.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Head of a Maiden

4th century B.C., Etruscan, terra-cotta. The Etruscan civilization had been renowned in the ancient Mediterranean for its fertile lands, mineral resources and trading power before Roman conquerors smothered its culture and history. This 8 ½-inch terra-cotta head of a maiden, possibly representing the goddess Persephone, reflects the wealth and artistic skill achieved by Italy’s first great civilization.

Seized: Merrin Gallery

Valued at more than $100,000, the antiquity was seized by investigators in 2021 from the New York-based gallery. Investigators say the maiden was in the possession of a convicted Italian antiquities trafficker, Giacomo Medici, before surfacing at Merrin Gallery in 1997. The piece, which Italian officials say was looted from its original site near Rome, is rare because it retains the fingerprints of the artisan who molded it before firing it in a kiln.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Herakles-Vajrapani (Hercules the Protector)

1st-2nd century A.D., Gandharan, schist stone. This statue of Herakles-Vajrapani depicts him as a faithful defender of Buddha, wearing the head of the Nemean lion he famously slew and holding his sacred sword at repose. The Gandhara civilization, in what is now the Peshawar Valley, adjoining Afghanistan and Pakistan, flourished under the rule of the Kushan Buddhists. Its art was heavily influenced by a Greek style of sculpture dating back to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area around 330 B.C.

Seized: Gallerist’s storage area, New York

This 42-inch-high gray schist item was seized in 2012 from a storage area controlled by Subhash Kapoor, an art dealer who authorities have identified as one of the world’s most prolific antiquities traffickers. Extensive chisel marks across the back reveal the crude methods used by looters in hacking it from its ancient site. Kapoor is accused by the district attorney’s office of smuggling it from Pakistan in 2005, paying $3,500 to have the sword reattached and pricing it at more than $1.75 million for sale at his gallery.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Dancing Ganesha

10th century A.D., Medieval Indian, sandstone. This depiction of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha was created during India’s medieval period, which lasted until the establishment of the Mughal Empire in 1526. A popular potbellied deity, Ganesha is often depicted with four arms, dancing among his attendants. He is shown holding sweets, of which he is inordinately fond.

Seized: Pierre Hotel, Manhattan

Valued at $500,000, the piece was looted from a northern Indian shrine before 2005, the authorities say. In 2006, it was obtained from an associate in India by Kapoor, the indicted New York antiquities dealer and restored by a British conservator, Richard Salmon, who has been convicted of fraud in the case. The statue, on display at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, was seized by the district attorney’s office in 2012. Authorities say Kapoor, awaiting trial in India, will ultimately be extradited to face charges filed in New York.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Volute Krater

330 B.C., Apulian, terra-cotta. The Apulian civilization, which arose in southern Italy along the Adriatic Sea from the 9th to the 3rd century B.C., was influenced by nearby Greek colonies. This red-figure krater, used for mixing wine with water, is attributed to a recognized artist known as the Baltimore Painter because one of his noted works is in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Seized: Fordham University

Investigators removed the 32-inch-tall krater on May 18, 2021, from Fordham University’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art in the Bronx. The museum had received it as a gift from an alumnus who had purchased it on the market. The painted ceramic, valued at $100,000, features a seated youthful warrior surrounded by figures with offerings on its obverse. It was recovered during the office’s investigation into Edoardo Almagià, an Italian-born, New York-based antiquities dealer. who left the United States for Rome in 2003 and remains under investigation.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Harihara

8th century A.D., Khmer Empire, sandstone. During the Khmer Empire’s classic period, its Angkorian society benefited from a vast canal-based irrigation system and prosperous trade relations with India and China. The result was a fusion of Buddhist and Hindu belief systems. While Cambodian temples carry many carvings of Buddha, they also feature Hindu icons like this 45-inch-high sculpture of Harihara, with the deities Shiva on the right and Vishnu on the left half.

Seized: Kapoor’s storage unit

In the late 20th century, amid decades of conflict and genocide, hundreds if not thousands of Khmer icons of all sizes were looted from Cambodia and sold illicitly overseas. This Harihara, valued at $175,000, was seized on July 18, 2012, from a storage unit belonging to the indicted trafficker Kapoor. It is unclear which Cambodian temple it was taken from, and it is being held as evidence in the case against Kapoor.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Etruscan Antefix

500 B.C., Etruscan, painted terra-cotta. In ancient Etruscan civilization, antefixes were lively terra-cotta objects that often depicted female figures crowned by diadems, a jeweled crown or headband. They adorned tombs or were placed along roof lines for decoration, to protect building tiles and to ward off bad luck.

Seized: Private collection in New York

This antefix, valued at $97,425, is one of four that officials say were stolen from the Cerveteri Necropolis, a burial site outside of Rome, by an Italian looting network, 1994-1996. Investigators say they were sold to a New York collector in 1996 by Almagià. The antefixes were seized on Aug. 4, 2021, from a New York collector who had purchased them on the market.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Head of Septimius Severus

200 A.D., Roman, marble. Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211 A.D.), the first African-born Roman emperor, was known for militarism, despotism and broad territorial expansion into Britain. He is depicted as having curly hair and a thick beard.

Seized: Christie’s Auction House

Valued at up to $600,000, this portrait bust was seized in 2020 from Christie’s New York, where it had been up for sale. In 1985, Italian authorities say, armed robbers stole it from Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a town in Italy’s Campanian region. It was laundered through the Zurich antiquities market in 1998, then acquired by “a private Swiss collector,” investigators say. The marble head resurfaced on the auction market in 2019, and was spotted in an auction catalog, leading investigators to pursue its seizure.


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Sivagami Amman

12th-13th century A.D., Chola Dynasty, bronze. Between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D., the Chola empire was the dominant cultural, artistic, religious and political force in southern India, centered in what is today Tamil Nadu. Sivagami is a form of the goddess Parvati, a major Hindu deity and consort to Lord Shiva. The word Amman refers to Parvati’s motherly nature.

Seized: Kapoor’s storage area

This sinuous idol was seized in 2012. Valued at $2 million, it is one of many bronze statues and icons that were stolen before 2008 from a temple in India, by Sanjeevi Asokan, a Kapoor associate and a convicted antiquities looter and smuggler based in Chennai. Kapoor is still awaiting trial in India in addition to the charges he faces in New York. A clue to the statue’s origins is on its base, where a Tamil inscription translates to “Suthamalli,” the name of the village where the temple is.

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