Rare Artifacts Looted From India Turn Up at the Honolulu Museum of Art

Federal agents praise the museum for cooperating in the fight against pilfered art.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.


The artwork that got the ball rolling—a 2,200-year-old clay rattle.


Federal special agents descended on the Honolulu Museum of Art last month on the trail of looted Indian antiquities as part of Operation Hidden Idol. Yes, that’s the real name.


The seven suspect artifacts put the museum in the spotlight as a cooperative partner in the fight against the thriving market in pilfered art.


Back in September, the museum reported on its blog that a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations paid the museum a visit.


The agent informed director Stephan Jost that a 2,200-year-old terra cotta Indian rattle that has been part of the museum’s extensive collection of South Asian art since 2003 was most likely looted from an archeological site in India. His agency had been alerted to the work by a museum visitor who saw the label identifying it as a gift from the Art of the Past. That’s a gallery owned by art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations. Kapoor is at the center of the ongoing case dubbed Operation Hidden Idol.


Over the past three years, special agents have executed a series of federal search warrants targeting Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery, along with a warehouse and storage facility linked to the dealer. And three individuals have been arrested in the United States for their role in the scheme. The estimated value of the artifacts seized so far in the case exceeds $100 million. The case has made international news, including coverage by The New York TimesThe Australian and Singapore’s Straits Times


After the agent’s initial visit to the museum, the board of trustees immediately approved handing over the rattle to Homeland Security and agreed the museum should cooperate in every way possible. Asian art staff began research to see if any other works in the collection came to the museum through Kapoor. They identified six additional works and, on April 1, the museum officially handed all seven over to HSI agents to be flown to New York where they are now potential evidence in Operation Hidden Idol. They’re being kept at what HSI calls “the Fortress,” a climate-controlled, high-security facility in Queens. Ultimately, officials anticipate the items will be repatriated to India.


The works carefully packed in a crate custom-built and carefully labeled by head preparatory Marc Thomas. 


Wayne Wills, special agent in charge for HSI Honolulu; Brenton Easter, HSI special agent who has overseen the case; the HSI Honolulu special agent who first identified the rattle in our gallery and oversaw coordination with the museum (he has to remain anonymous as he still works undercover); and Lou Martinez, of the office of public affairs for DHS/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York arrived at the museum on the morning of April 1. Easter and the special agent who will remain unnamed sat down with the museum’s Asian art curator Shawn Eichman to go over paperwork itemizing the seven artworks, and discussed the ongoing issue of looted artwork and the art market. The HSI team was led to the museum’s subterranean packing room, where three of the works were already carefully cocooned—but still visible—in a crate handcrafted by chief preparator Marc Thomas. The crate and its packing materials were meticulously labeled with instructions on how to unpack the artworks.


Special agent men!

Easter said that many of the items can be traced to one of India’s richest archeological regions, Chandraketugarh. “We have good information that this site had been pillaged and ravaged in the 1980s and 1990s. The rattle came to our attention from a source who had been here at the museum on vacation and saw it.” Easter pointed to one of the works and said it may have been taken from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while another may be from a sacred Buddhist site. “So they’re very important.”


Easter and his colleagues examined the seven items, and Thomas proceeded to carefully wrap and pack the four works not yet in the crate. Museum director Stephan Jost signed a seizure form, and Thomas sealed the crates, which were rolled to HSI’s awaiting truck. This all happened with reporters, photographers and videographers from Hawai‘i’s major news outlets covering the event.


Transporting the crates through the museum basement to HSI’s awaiting truck.


The museum receives no compensation for turning over the artwork. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Jost. “Looting is a serious problem in the art market and all buyers of art, including museums, need to be mindful that some antiquities have been illegally obtained. “Over the past several years, American art museums have become progressively more rigorous in vetting the history of objects they acquire. Clearly the museum could have done better in the past. We hope that bringing attention to this problem and doing the right thing will help reduce looting of cultural objects.”


“I can’t thank the museum enough for their cooperation in this case,” Easter says. “Many major international museums own works from Subhash Kapoor, and we hope that the Honolulu Museum of Art’s example will blaze the way for other institutions to come forward.”


Two days later, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which has been working with HSI since 2011, announced it was handing over a 19th-century painting it secured from Kapoor


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.