Nita Ambani, The Met & Smuggling of Indian Antiques

The wife of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, also Asia’s richest businessman; Nita Ambani, has been elected to the board of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), New York for her commitment to preserve and promote India’s art and culture. The Met however, is known to be involved in smuggling of Indian antiques and has a long history of allegations and lawsuits about its status as an institutional buyer of looted and stolen antiquities. This is in stark contrast to the objective of ‘promoting India’s art and culture’ with which Nita Ambani has been elected to The Met’s board, specifically at a time when the Ambani’s themselves are being investigated for money laundering.

Nita Ambani, The Met and Smuggling of Indian Antiques
Nita Ambani, The Met and Smuggling of Indian Antiques

Welcoming Nita Ambani to the board, Chairman Daniel Brodsky, in a statement, said that her commitment to The Met and to preserving and promoting India’s art and culture is truly exceptional. Her support has an enormous impact on the museum’s ability to study and display art from every corner of the world.

Ms. Ambani has been named the Honorary Trustee and is also a member of The Met’s International Council. The museum had announced in October 2017 that the Reliance Foundation promised a generous gift” to support exhibitions that explore and celebrate the arts of India. It had not stated the amount of the gift.

The museum had then described Nita and Mukesh Ambani as “great champions of The Met.” In a statement made at the time of the announcement of the gift in 2017, Nita Ambani had said that India has a rich heritage of art and culture that can be traced back to the fourth century B.C.

However, anti-trafficking experts well-versed in the illicit trafficking in cultural goods, including antiquities and works of art concerned about the objective of the partnership given the long history of allegations and lawsuits about The Met’s status as an institutional buyer of looted and stolen antiquities.

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Since the 1990s the Met has been the subject of numerous investigative reports and books critical of the Met’s laissez-faire attitude to acquisition. The Met has lost several major lawsuits, notably against the governments of Italy and Turkey, who successfully sought the repatriation of hundreds of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern antiquities, with a total value in the hundreds of millions of dollars, in what is known as The Medici Conspiracy.

What is shocking is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been involved in the smuggling of Indian antiques and idols as well.

In the late 1990s, long-running investigations by the Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), the art crimes division of the Italian Carabinieri, accused the Metropolitan Museum of acquiring “black market” antiquities. TPC investigations in Italy revealed that many ancient Mediterranean objects acquired from the 1960s to the 1990s had been purchased, via a complex network of front companies and unscrupulous dealers, from the criminal gang led by Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici.”

In addition to the ongoing investigations by the Italian police (TPC), lawsuits brought by the Governments of Italy, Turkey and Cambodia against the Metropolitan Museum of Art contend that the acquisition of the Euphronius krater may have demonstrated a pattern of less than rigorous investigation into the origin and legitimate provenance of highly desirable antiquities for the museum’s collections.

Examples include, the Cloisters Cross, a large Romanesque cross carved from walrus ivory, the Karun Treasure, also known as the Lydian Hoard, a collection of 200 gold, silver, bronze and earthenware objects, dating from the 7th Century BCE, and part of a larger haul of some 450 objects looted by local tomb robbers from four ancient royal tombs near Sardis, in Turkey in 1966–67.

After a six-year legal battle that reportedly cost the Turkish government UK£25 million the case ended dramatically after it was revealed that the minutes of the Met’s own acquisition committee described how a curator had actually visited the looted burial mounds in Turkey to confirm the authenticity of the objects. The Met was forced to concede that staff had known the objects were stolen when it bought them, and the collection was repatriated to Turkey in 1993.

In the early 1980s, the Met acquired the Morgantina treasure – a hoard of ornate Hellenistic silverware dated 3rd century BC, valued at perhaps up to US$100 million. It was later shown to have been looted from the Morgantina archaeological site in Sicily. After a protracted lawsuit, the Met conceded that it was looted, and agreed in 2006 to repatriate it to Sicily, with the Met stating in 2006 that the repatriation “redresses past improprieties in the acquisitions process”.

The Met is also one of many institutional buyers known to have acquired looted artifacts from a Thai-based British “collector”, Douglas Latchford.” Among the objects sold or donated to major museums by Latchford are a number of rare ancient Khmer statues, reportedly looted from the temple site of Koh Ker in Cambodia, and at least two Indian seated Kushan Buddhas, looted from the ancient Indian city of Mathura.

One of the seated Buddhas was originally offered—via Manhattan dealer Nancy Wiener—to Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum, but they ultimately declined to buy it, owing to its dubious provenance. In 2000 it was bought by the National Gallery of Australia, but subsequent investigations exposed the seated Buddha as a looted artwork, and it has since been repatriated to India.

In 2013, the Met announced that it would repatriate to Cambodia two ancient Khmer statues, known as “The Kneeling Attendants”, which it had acquired from Latchford (in fragments) in 1987 and 1992. A spokesperson for the Met stated that the museum had received “dispositive” evidence that the objects had been looted from Koh Ker and illegally exported to the United States.

In 2012, the FBI brought down Subhash Kapoor, a well-known art dealer from Manhattan and a notorious smuggler of Indian antiquities, who is awaiting trial in India. Kapoor is accused of smuggling and selling hundreds of stolen artefacts from India. Many of these artefacts passed through Hong Kong, including a rare 900-year-old Shiva sculpture bought by the National Gallery of Australia, which was later returned to India in 2016.

Since 1990, the Met has acquired some 15 antiquities that passed through Mr. Kapoor’s hands during a period in which, the authorities say, his smuggling ring was active and he routinely sold or donated rare and costly artifacts to at least a dozen American museums.

Last month, New York officials charged Mr. Kapoor with 86 felony counts and accused him of trafficking in $145 million in antiquities dating back as far as 1974. The first Kapoor antiquities to arrive at the Met were a set of first-century terra-cotta rattles in the shape of Yaksha, a nature spirit. The last Kapoor-related piece to enter the collection, an 11th-century celestial dancer carved from sandstone, came in 2015. None of the provenances for the Met’s items, as shown on the museum’s website, lists an owner who predates Mr. Kapoor.

Several years ago, when the authorities first characterized the scope of the smuggling they attributed to Mr. Kapoor, the Met said it did not plan a special review of its collection because it said it did not think the items it held were the focus of suspicion. More recently, museum officials reversed that position and began a more thorough review of the antiquities that track back to Mr. Kapoor.

Homeland Security investigators and officials with the Manhattan district attorney’s office have spearheaded the domestic investigation into Mr. Kapoor, seizing more than 2,500 items from warehouses he controlled. Indian officials have begun to sort through these stockpiles to determine which items they can definitively claim and to weed out fakes. As a result, the vast majority of the relinquished items have yet to return to India, and the repatriations have been piecemeal.

Since 2016, when Attorney General Loretta Lynch handed over 200 stolen cultural artifacts during a ceremony at the Indian Embassy in Washington, about 40 have been returned to India, but none yet to the temples and shrines where some of them originated.

Infact, The Met’s involvement in the illicit trafficking of cultural goods is so extensive that there is a dedicated course on the subject taught by Erin Thompson, Ph.D. in art history, Manhattan. The course is titled, Shenanigans at the Met: A Short History of Smuggling, Sex, Fakes, and other Faux Pas at New York’s Most Prominent Museum.

The summary for the course says, ‘Ever wondered if the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art destroyed or radically alter works of art through the use of un-tested restoration techniques? Purchased antiquities they knew had been looted and illegally imported? Fondled their secretaries in back offices? Spent millions of dollars and displayed works long after the rest of the scholarly establishment mocked them as obvious fakes? Thanks to tell-all memoirs and investigative journalism, we now know that the answer to all these questions is yes – and how!’

Given the objective of the partnership between the Ambani’s and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to promote Indian culture and art, it remains to be seen what Mrs. Ambani brings to the table and how she would deal the rampant institutional smuggling of Indian national treasures – specifically at a time when the Nita and Mukesh Ambani themselves are under investigation by Indian authorities for money laundering while brother Anil Ambani is being dragged to London court by Chinese bankers.

At the root of the problem are London based Auction Houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s setup by the Intelligence Officers of the East India Company who looted the Indian artefacts, temple idols, manuscripts etc from the treasury after the sacking of Indian Kingdoms. These world famous auction housed were founded on the loot of British officers.

Warehouses of these British officers in Britain, now under the care of their grandchildren are full of looted Indian treasures. Few of the items looted by Robert Clive from Tirumala Tirupati temples were very recently in 2004 auctioned at Christie’s in London by his grandchildren who were short of money. The auction fetched them £4 million. Still they have warehouses full of same Indian treasure. This is just one such case of a mere clerk of the East India Company; what about other high-ranking officers?

What is noteworthy is that these auction houses are still involved in the smuggling of Indian antiques, temple idols, manuscripts etc, and recently also involved in the case of diamond jeweler Nirav Modi as exposed by GreatGameIndia in the report Nirav Modi and the Smuggling of National Treasure. The issue of smuggling by these British auction houses was also recently raised by the Head Priest of Tirumala temple based on our research report The Smuggling Syndicate of Tirumala Tirupati Temples.

Indian government did create an Idol Wing to crackdown on these Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Goods including Antiques and works of Art but sadly the seized artefacts including temple idols were recently found to be left to rot in a parking lot in Chennai, in once such case. To combat these transnational organised smuggling rings India needs a comprehensive effort as is being employed by other nations – the victims of the colonial British Empire’s legacy, as is being suggested in our earlier reports above.

Colonial smuggling networks are the hotspots of terrorism today. This should be of utmost concern to our security establishment, since the antiques smuggled out of India directly funds terrorist activities. As an example, with the gains from selling one Buddha sculpture (stolen from Mathura and illicitly sold for $1 million), terrorists could literally fund a dozen Paris-style attacks. To put that in an extrapolated perspective, that’s 1,500 lives that could be lost by smuggling out just one piece of Indian heritage.

If you wish to have a historical perspective of the destruction of Indian Knowledge Bases and how it was smuggled out of India and the geopolitical players involved, check out our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance.

GreatGameIndia is a journal on Geopolitics and International Relations. Get to know the Geopolitical threats India is facing in our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance

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