Guilty Plea in U.S. Ancient-Statue Smuggling Case


A statue of Shiva as Lord of the Dance at the Asia Society and Museum in New York, which is similar to the one exhibited in the Australian national arts museum. (AP photo)

By indiawest

A former manager of a now-closed New York art gallery has pleaded guilty for his role in an international scheme to smuggle ancient Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

Federal officials say Aaron Freedman pleaded guilty in state Supreme Court in Manhattan Dec. 6 to conspiracy and criminal possession of stolen property worth $35 million.

Authorities say the Princeton, New Jersey, resident admitted helping the Art of the Past gallery owner Subhash Kapoor ship stolen items from India, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The gallery owner is in Indian custody. He faces stolen property charges in New York.

A defense lawyer told the New York Post that Freedman is taking steps toward rectifying his mistakes.

Officials say Freedman helped sell a $5 million stolen statue of Shiva Nataraja that’s displayed at the National Gallery of Australia. The gallery says it will work with authorities.

According to the Post, Freedman worked at the now shuttered Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past for 20 years and helped the 64-year-old Kapoor create fake ownership histories and peddle the valuable idols to leading museums and private collectors all over the world.

Kapoor was arrested in Germany and extradited to India in 2012 to face charges of trafficking in sacred idols stolen from religious sites.

A few weeks later, federal agents seized over $100 million worth of rare sculptures from Kapoor’s gallery and four Manhattan storage sites.

Freedman admitted he helped Kapoor steal and hide a $15 million sandstone statue stolen from India of the goddess Yakshi gracefully standing beside a tree.

The Princeton resident also confessed to selling and shipping a $5 million statue of the Hindu deity Shiva to the National Gallery of Australia in 2007.

The wheelchair bound art crook told Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon that he’s suffering from the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis.

“After the onset of my disease, obtaining employment at a reputable gallery or auction house was virtually impossible,” he said.

Solomon is expected to sentence Freedman in February on six counts of conspiracy and possession of stolen property. It’s unclear whether he faces prison time.

“Mr. Freedman is intent on rectifying the serious mistakes that he made and today is the first concrete step,” said defense lawyer Paul Bergman.

Over the last decade, Kapoor and Freedman pulled off the massive scheme by allegedly accepting shipments of stolen antiquities packed among knockoffs.

“The paperwork would say they were all fakes. They used those to get them out of India,” a source told the Post.

A report from the Telegraph in Sidney has said that Australia’s national art museum will return the prized 900-year-old dancing Shiva to India after it emerged that it was stolen and smuggled out of south India.

According to the Telegraph, the National Gallery of Australia has for months resisted Indian pleas to return the sculpture and other works which Indian officials insisted were stolen.

But the gallery has now accepted the items were stolen after Freedman admitted to involvement in the sale of 150 looted items.

The gallery says it will sue Kapoor but plans to continue to display the controversial Shiva Nataraja at the entry to its Indian Gallery until the piece is returned to India.

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