Sunday, May 24, 2015

Honolulu museum helps with worldwide artifact theft investigation

It's like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents converge on the Honolulu Museum of Art to retrieve stolen antiquities. This is part of a worldwide investigation – one the museum is happy to be part of.

"They don't belong here. They're stolen," said Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost. "On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we've had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don't belong here."

Jost is gladly handing seven artifacts over to federal agents. They're hot. Stolen! It's now part of a case against New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who's accused of being involved in an international antiquities smuggling operation.

Immigration and customs enforcement agents contacted the museum last year after determining the 2000-year-old terra cotta rattle may be one of the stolen items. The museum jumped into action identifying even more ill-gotten pieces.

"Seven works. Five we bought from the dealer. One was given us by the dealer," said Jost. "We thought he was such a nice guy. One was sold to a private investor who gave it to the museum."

Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Easter is on this case. He's kind of like the Indiana Jones of ICE. His educational background is archaeology. He's been investigating the theft of cultural items for a decade and says this is a big case.

"Three other pieces came from a site which we believe was recently pillaged as recently as the 1990s. The pillaging there was rather prolific," said Easter. "It's good to know we're recovering this material and we'll be able to send it back because a lot of this material left India, I think. before the government knew it was there."

The items were carefully packed up and loaded onto a truck. They'll make their way to the East Coast while authorities build their case. Eventually, they, too, will return home. Easter says the museum was a big help.

"They came forward with the information. The provided us with additional information leading us to other pieces," said Easter. "They were incredibly helpful. They were incredibly easy to work with. I can't thank them enough."

"The more light you shine on systems, the more you ruin their market and I'm more than happy to ruin their market," said Jost.

Since 2007, ICE has repatriated over 7,800 artifacts. Kapoor is sitting in an Indian jail awaiting trial. There is an U.S. arrest warrant as well.

Special Agent Easter says three of Kapoor's co-defendants have been convicted in the U.S. Eventually, the seven artifacts retrieved on Wednesday will be returned to their homeland India.

You can read the transcript and or see the news clip here.

Akana, Paula. 2015. “Honolulu museum helps with worldwide artifact theft investigation”. KITV4. Posted: April 1, 2015. Available online:

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