D.A. Bragg Announces Return of Four Antiquities to the People of Nepal

December 4, 2023

Pictured: “Bharaiva Mask”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., today announced the return of four antiquities collectively valued at more than $1 million to the people of Nepal. Three of the pieces were recovered pursuant to several ongoing investigations into trafficking networks targeting Nepali antiquities, and one was seized pursuant to the Office’s investigation into SUBHASH KAPOOR, an allegedly prolific looter who helped traffic items from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries. The antiquities were returned today at a ceremony with Nepal’s Acting New York Consul General Bishnu Prasad Gautam and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Deputy Special Agent in Charge Christopher Lau.

“We will continue to target antiquities trafficking networks no matter how complex. I thank our outstanding team of analysts and attorneys, along with our partners at HSI, for recovering and returning these beautiful pieces,” said District Attorney Bragg.

“The return of these illegally exported four masterpieces is a significant step in reclaiming Nepal’s cultural heritage and preserving its historical treasures. This has deeply contributed to Nepal’s national efforts of recovery and reinstatement of lost cultural properties. The cooperation and collaboration between Nepal and the Manhattan District Attorney in this field, like in others, are deeply commendable and inspirations for the international community in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts,” said Acting Consul General Bishnu Prasad Gautam.

“The Nepalese culture finds its essence in the embrace of rich religious traditions and the three artifacts being repatriated today hold significance in ceremonious worship. While there is always a threat of traffickers seeking to plunder cultural treasures for financial gain, we are honored to contribute in restoration of this robust heritage,” said Special Agent in Charge Ivan J. Arvelo, HSI New York. “HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Art, and Antiquities Group, in collaboration with our partners, remains steadfast in reuniting nations with fragments of their cherished history.”

The pieces being repatriated include:

  • A pair of gilt bronze Bhairava masks, dating to the 16th century and collectively valued at $900,000. These masks depict the god as Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity which also includes Brahma and Vishnu. They were used for ritual worship during the annual Indra Jātrā festival in Nepal. Both masks were stolen in the mid-1990s as part of a series of break-in robberies from the home of the family whose relatives created the masks. They were then smuggled to Hong Kong, sold at auction in New York, and subsequently entered the collections of the Rubin Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art until they were recovered earlier this year by the Office.
  • The Ten-Armed Durga Statue was allegedly smuggled out of Nepal by the Zeeshan and Zahid Butt trafficking network, which was run by KAPOOR’s alleged co-conspirators. The statue was then purchased from the Butts in Bangkok by KAPOOR and subsequently trafficked into New York in the early 2000s, before it was recovered from a KAPOOR-owned storage unit.

Pictured: “Durga Figure”

For over a decade, the District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, along with law enforcement partners at Homeland Security Investigations, have investigated KAPOOR and his co-conspirators for the alleged illegal looting, exportation, and sale of artifacts from numerous countries in South and Southeast Asia, including Nepal. As alleged, KAPOOR and his co-defendants generally smuggled looted antiquities into Manhattan and sold the pieces through KAPOOR’S Madison Avenue-based gallery, Art of the Past. From 2011 to 2023 the D.A.’s Office and HSI recovered more than 2,500 items allegedly trafficked by KAPOOR and his network. The total value of the pieces recovered exceeds $143 million.

The D.A.’s Office obtained an arrest warrant for KAPOOR in 2012.[1] In November 2019, KAPOOR and seven of his co-defendants were indicted for their conspiracy to traffic stolen antiquities. KAPOOR’s extradition from India is pending. Five of his co-defendants have already been convicted. This includes two of his indicted co-defendants as well as three other traffickers who had been charged separately.

During District Attorney Bragg’s tenure, the ATU has recovered more than 1000 antiquities stolen from more than two dozen countries and valued at nearly $225 million.  Since its creation, the ATU has recovered more than 4,700 antiquities and returned more than 4,000 of them so far to 25 countries and valued at more than $400 million.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel, supervised the investigation conducted by Assistant District Attorney Christine DiDomenico; Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer, Investigative Analyst Hilary Chassé; and Special Agents John Paul Labbat, Brenton Easter, Christopher Rommeney, and Robert Fromkin of Homeland Security Investigations. Investigative support was provided by Sarita Subedi of the Department of Archaeology of Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Civil Aviation; Sanjay Adhikari of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign; and Dr. Erin Thompson. The District Attorney’s Office would like to thank the Brooklyn Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art for their assistance and cooperation with our investigation.

[1] Any charges referenced herein that have not already resulted in convictions are merely allegations, and any individuals not convicted are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.  All factual recitations are derived from documents filed in court and statements made on the record in court.

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