The next time Modi visits the US, President Barack Obama might become the latest in a growing list of national leaders who seem to be using the prime minister's trips as an opportunity to earn diplomatic goodwill by returning stolen artefacts.
In January 2014, the US returned three sandstone sculptures of Vishnu, Laxmi and Buddha to India, to signal improved diplomatic relations that had soured over the Devyani Khobragade episode.
In September, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned a dancing Nataraja and an Ardhanarishwara statue, both stolen by Kapoor, as a gesture of goodwill. January brought the news of another ghar wapsi, this time of a 2,000-year-old Buddha statue smuggled by Kapoor that the National Gallery of Australia had for years denied any wrongdoing around. This came even as Australian parliament criticised the gallery for not scrutinising the statue’s documentation at the time of purchase.
Abbott and Modi with the Dancing Shiva or Nataraja idol in September. Prakash Singh/AFP
Canada’s return, for now, might not be from the Kapoor collection. That statue, known as Parrot Lady, was discovered with a private dealer in Canada in 2011. Until July, it was not even certain if Canada would return the statue because authorities at Khajuraho had not reported its theft.
Despite that, the Kapoor heist is much more enormous than the authorities suspected when they first began to track him. When Interpol arrested him in 2011 at the Frankfurt airport, they were following the trail of two thefts in Tamil Nadu in 2005 and 2008.
In August 2012, authorities broke into a Manhattan storage unit where they discovered what they thought was $20 million dollars worth of sandstone and bronze statues. By December, they realised the 2,622 artefacts from his warehouses were worth $100 million dollars.
Art heist investigation website Chasing Aphrodite, which has been tracking and breaking the story since the beginning, points out, “For some perspective on that number, the FBI’s art squad has seized a total of $150 million in art since its inception in 2004, according to its website.”
This figure does not cover the 500 artefacts that 18 museums in the US have admitted to buying from him or the 234 other institutions across four continents. Kapoor, an American citizen of Indian origin, set up shop in Manhattan in 1976. His art gallery Art of the Past in the central museum district of the city, was well known for sourcing rare antiquities from South Asia.
Kapoor is now awaiting trial in Chennai. After that, the US is likely to ask for his deportation so that he can assist investigators there as they attempt to trace decades’ worth of potentially stolen art. Australia has sued him for five million dollars.
India began to police art exports only in the 1970s. Items taken before that are not legally considered stolen. Art diplomacy can only go so far. Stolen art work has been an Indian grudge for decades, but these recent gifts are unlikely to persuade countries such as the United Kingdom, whose larger museums are built on objects of dodgy origin, to repatriate other more famous items such as the Kohinoor or Tipu Sultan’s sword, taken from the country at a time when the definition of theft and possession was more fluid.
Here are a few items from Kapoor's collection that have travelled the world and will soon make their way back to India.
Triratna Symbol. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The museum has acknowledged these were gifts from Kapoor, but has not yet stated whether it will return them.
Ganesha (Purchased). Toledo Museum of Art.
The museum announced in October that it would return a 1,000-year-old bronze Ganesha stolen from Tamil Nadu around 2006.
The God Revanta Returning from a Hunt. Metropolitan Museum of Arts.
Kapoor gifted this 10th century bronze to the museum. It is not known whether Kapoor stole this or if it was a legitimate purchase.
Honolulu Museum of Art.
On April 2, the museum handed over seven Kapoor items to the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate their return to India.
Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjavur and his son Shivaji II, mid-19th century. Peabody Essex Museum of Arts.
A day later, the Peabody Essex Museum surrendered this painting to the Department of Homeland Security on the request of investigators. The museum paid $35,000 for it in 2006.