The Manhattan district attorney’s office has taken a key next step in prosecuting the $143 million Asian antiquities smuggling ring led by disgraced dealer Subhash Kapoor with the arraignment yesterday of 58-year-old British art restorer Neil Perry Smith on 29 counts.
Smith is accused of restoring 22 illegally obtained Cambodian, Thai, and Nepalese antiquities, collectively valued at over $32 million, ahead of their sale at Kapoor’s New York gallery, Art of the Past. He was tasked with cleaning and repairing the stolen artworks, removing dirt and other signs that they had been looted and smuggled into the country in order to deceive potential buyers.
“The arraignment of Neil Perry Smith serves as a reminder that behind every antiquities trafficking ring preying upon cultural heritage for profit, there is someone reassembling and restoring these looted pieces to lend the criminal enterprise a veneer of legitimacy,” district attorney Cy Vance Jr. said in a statement. “Without restorers to disguise stolen relics, there would be no laundered items for antiquities traffickers to sell.”
The state has charged Smith with criminal possession of stolen property, grand larceny, conspiracy, and scheme to defraud, among other counts. The works in question include bronze murti statues representing the goddess Uma Parvati, which are worth $3.5 million, and a $5 million Shiva Nataraja statue.
After Kapoor hired Smith to restore an 11th century ceramic Naga Buddha figure in 2009, the dealer allegedly created a false provenance for the work. He attempted to sell it for $1.2 million, despite having valued it at $5,504.45 on shipping documents following the restoration.
Smith also has ties to British art collector and dealer Douglas A.J. Latchford, who was charged with trafficking antiquities before his death last August, according to the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art. Latchford’s daughter has since arranged to repatriate his collection to Cambodia.
Vance thanked the Metropolitan Police Service in London for their role in the investigation, which led to Smith’s extradition from London. The D.A.’s office is still seeking the extradition of Kapoor, who is currently in jail awaiting trial in India.
“We look forward to seeing alleged ringleader Subhash Kapoor inside of a Manhattan courtroom in the near future,” Vance added. “In the meantime, we will continue to pursue these cases vigorously and return these stolen items to the countries from which they were stolen.”
Kapoor and Smith were first indicted in October 2019 along with six other co-defendants. Smith is the second to be arraigned, following Brooklyn restorer Richard Salmon. The others, Sanjeeve Asokan, Dean Dayal, Ranjeet Kanwar, Aditya Rakash, and Vallabh Prakash, are still at large.
The Manhattan D.A.’s antiquities trafficking unit worked with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations for years to identify looted works entering New York from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Law enforcement recovered more than 2,500 smuggled artifacts valued in excess of $143 million between 2011 and 2020.
The U.S. returned 33 artifacts to Afghanistan in April and 27 to Cambodia in June. Institutions including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Honolulu Museum of Art have also repatriated antiquities acquired via Kapoor. The smuggling ring is believed to have been in operation for three decades. ARTNET