HONOLULU – An international investigation into antiquities looted from India and smuggled into the United States has taken authorities to the Honolulu Museum of Art.
The museum on Wednesday handed over seven rare artifacts that it acquired without museum officials realizing they were ill-gotten items. Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will take the items back to New York and, from there, eventually return them to the government of India.
U.S. customs agents say the items were taken from religious temples and ancient Buddhist sites, and then allegedly smuggled to the United States by an art dealer. The dealer, Subhash Kapoor, was arrested in 2011 and is awaiting trial in India. Officials say Kapoor created false provenances for the illicit antiquities.
Someone on vacation visiting the museum last year recognized the name of Kapoor's New York gallery as the source of a 2,000-year-old terra cotta rattle and contacted authorities, said Stephan Jost, the museum's director. Museum officials then pored over their records and determined six other Indian items had ties to Kapoor.
Kapoor donated one of the items and sold five to the museum, Jost said. One was a gift from someone else.
Agents are hailing the Honolulu museum for being the first U.S. institution to publicly and easily cooperate with the investigation, dubbed "Operation Hidden Idol," involving four arrests and the recovery of thousands of pieces worth a total of $150 million.
"Owning stolen stuff is not part of our mission," Jost said. "I'm not sure we've done anything heroic. We just want to do the right thing."
Jost watched as agents inspected the items -- the rattle, figurines, architectural fragments and tiles -- and them hauled them in packed crates into a truck.
Martinez stressed there's no culpability on the museum's part, as it wasn't aware of the items' provenance when it acquired them between 1991 and 2003.
American art museums are becoming more rigorous in vetting the history of objects they acquire, Jost said. "Could we have done a better job? Sure," he said. "Were we a victim? Yes."
It's not uncommon for unsavory dealers to donate ill-gotten items for tax benefits and other reasons, said Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Brenton Easter. He's part of a group of agents in New York that focus on cultural property crime whose work includes dismantling the organizations behind the crimes and repatriating the seized pieces.
Some institutions are reluctant to come forward, partly because of the financial loss involved, Easter said.
It's very rare for evidence to come to light to show a museum has items that were illegally obtained, said James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
"Claims might come from time to time. But most often those claims are based on just interest or the construction of national identity," he said. "If evidence is provided that's convincing, no museum will resist."
He cited an example from about 10 years ago when Italian police uncovered evidence revealing a number of items that were improperly removed from Italy. The U.S. museums where some of the items ended up returned them, he said.
Repatriation has become more common in the past couple of decades, said Malcom Bell, a professor of Greek and Roman art and archaeology at the University of Virginia. As a general rule of thumb, museums and art collectors avoid purchasing items exported without clear and valid documentation before 1970 -- the year of a United Nations cultural agreement targeting trafficking in antiquities, he said.
"Transparency is important, and if the Honolulu museum has been open, that's probably to be applauded," Bell said.