‘I have been framed’

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Subash Chandra Kapoor, a 2012 photograph. Photo: M. Moorthy

Interview with Subash Chandra Kapoor.

When Frontline met Subash Chandra Kapoor on the Sessions Court premises at Jayamkondam in Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, on December 6, 2013, he spoke freely despite a close ring of armed guards around him.

A remand prisoner, he spoke for nearly 30 minutes in English with an American drawl. He said he never traded in stolen goods. His arrest, he claimed, was a part of an international conspiracy. When the judicial officer took the charges against him on file in the Suthamalli temple looting case, he urged him to read out the charges in English because he did not understand Tamil. He denied all the charges and pleaded not guilty.

He is not overly sentimental and has little remorse about his dealings in ancient art. His talk was peppered with occasional verbal burlesques against the Tamil Nadu police and the media. Excerpts from the conversation:

You are accused of smuggling ancient idols from Tamil Nadu. Is it not a grave crime to loot antiquities from a place of worship that symbolises the cultural ethos of a race and state?

I have been framed by the Tamil Nadu Police. I have never dealt in stolen articles. Am I a fool to indulge in such illegal activities since I know very well that it would jeopardise my trade and reputation internationally in a business involving big and creditable customers and built on trust and genuineness worth billions of dollars? I buy goods and sell. I am a pure trader in art like many others.

You camouflaged your operations under the air of sophistication. But still you are accused of providing fake provenances to the antiquities while selling art works to important museums in Australia, New York and Singapore. In fact, an Australian museum has come out with a statement accusing you of providing a fraud provenance.

Look, as I told you earlier, I am a businessman. I buy things from someone and sell them to some others. When I buy artefacts I get certificates vouchsafing their antiquity and ownership from sellers. It is based on faith. One has to be sure of their origin and genuineness while buying. But it is not my responsibility to prove after the sale transaction is over.

The Tamil Nadu Idol Wing CID claims that it has visual evidence of antique idols of the 11th century that have been stolen from temples at Suthamalli and Sripuranthan villages in the State allegedly on your instructions. These photographs, they claim, “resemble” the ones that were found in your art catalogues and also sold by your New York gallery to different museums. Do you still deny charges?

The charges of idol-lifting against me are as rubbish as the claims that these visuals of stolen idols “resemble” the ones I sold to different buyers. To prove the claims of “resemblance” you need documentary evidence from experts and not a few smudged photographs. The visuals and idols could be looking similar. But can they be one and the same? Each idol carries some unique features despite having general similarities with others. Hence, you must seek the expertise of internationally reputed antique experts to clarify and certify the provenance of idols claimed to have been stolen from a temple before you accuse me of felony.

Do you mean the idols that were seized from your warehouse are not the ones stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu? The Tamil Nadu Police claim that you have confessed to your crimes.

You and your media can find it out. Let your policemen help you. Why do you bother me when I am saying that I am not involved in any criminal activities? I repeat that I have never bought any stolen pieces from anyone. I have no necessity to trade in any clandestine goods. The police forced me to give the statement. Let them show the video.

You sound desperate. The police have a video clip of your confession. Besides, do you mean to say that the reports on stolen idols that were found and seized from your gallery by Federal agents of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) are a sham?

No. I am not desperate. Why should I be when I am not guilty. The Tamil Nadu Police for some bizarre reasons has framed me in this serious crime. I know who are behind this conspiracy. I will deal with them legally later. I have been detained in prison since July last year [2012] and do not know about any developments that took place in New York and elsewhere. I am not privy to such updated information to which you media guys are.

The American investigation agency had raided your warehouse and gallery repeatedly and reportedly seized a few bronze idols that carry a resemblance to those that were stolen from the temples in Tamil Nadu. Aaron Freedman, the manager of your gallery, Art of The Past, pleaded guilty in the court of law to the charges of possession of stolen antiquities. What do you say now?

That is news for me. He [Freedman] was not the manager as claimed. Let me tell you something. An art dealer in Singapore, a woman, against whom I won a half-a- million-dollar suit in a Singapore court, is behind this. She used to file email complaints against me, and based on those the Tamil Nadu Police arrested me.

It is a conspiracy to destroy my billion-dollar business built studiously on faith and reputation. I do not want to talk further since I have got to consult my legal experts in New York.

But the truth remains that your warehouse was raided and a few ancient idols were seized. Your sister was criminally charged for her role in the issue. Australian museum authorities have also said that you had supplied stolen pieces of art to them. A few blogs and the international media have carried exhaustive stories about you.

Yes. It amounts to libel to run such reports unverified. The blogs and the media need to be responsible. I am not guilty. I told the same in the court [Jayamkondam] when charges were framed against me in the Suthamalli case. I am just a dealer in art pieces. The Tamil Nadu Police would find it difficult to prove their charges against me.

You look confident because you are well aware that the temples from which the idols have been pilfered do not possess documentary evidence.

That is an absurd claim. Just because they look indistinguishable from each other you cannot say that both are the same and brand me a thief.

How is your health?

I am not well. I am a severe diabetic and am suffering from hypertension. I am also allergic to dairy products.

And, above all, I am a prostate cancer patient. I need to take medicines regularly. My doctors in New York have detailed my medical requirements, which in turn have been endorsed by a panel of doctors from the Tamil Nadu government following my petition in the Madras High Court.

Despite my poor health condition, the Tamil Nadu Prison administration is not giving the medicines regularly. Of the six doses of cancer suppressant injections, I have received just one shot so far.