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British antiquities restorer arraigned in U.S. after extradition from London

Neil Perry Smith’s name figured in two idol theft cases in T.N.

U.S. authorities announced the indictment of Neil Perry Smith, 58, following his extradition from London to face charges for his role in a decades-long, global antiquities trafficking ring that looted and smuggled culturally significant relics from Asia and sold them in New York’s art market.

He was allegedly involved in restoring broken Nataraja idols which were stolen from Sripuranthan, Ariyalur and Sri Narambunathar, Thirunelveli district.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. made this announcement on Tuesday.

Smith is charged with possessing and restoring 22 stolen pieces, with an estimated value of more than $32 million.

His restorations concealed the antiquities’ origin so that alleged conspiracy ring leader Subash Kapoor could then sell them at his now-closed Madison Avenue-based gallery, Art of the Past.

Smith, Kapoor and six other co-defendants were indicted in October 2019 following a year-long investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, along with law enforcement partners at U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), into the group’s illicit activities affecting the New York market and originating in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar, and other nations. From 2011 to 2020, the D.A.’s Office and HSI recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network over a three-decade span. The total value of the pieces recovered exceeds $143 million.

A reminder

“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. Smith will now face justice on U.S. soil, and we look forward to seeing alleged ringleader Subhash Kapoor inside of a Manhattan courtroom in the near future. In the meantime, we will continue to pursue these cases vigorously and return the items to the countries from which they were stolen,” said District Attorney Vance in a statement.

Smith and Brooklyn-based restorer Richard Salmon were contracted by Kapoor to clean stolen antiquities and repair any defects, such as dirt, rust, or damage that might indicate recent looting or theft.

According to invoices and inventory logs seized from Kapoor’s office and storage locations, Kapoor typically arranged for the antiquities to be sent to one of the restorers after their arrival at Art of the Past. For example, Smith restored the bases of numerous bronze relics stolen from temples in India after smugglers intentionally broke them to facilitate their removal and move them across international borders. Smith’s restorations helped Kapoor mislead potential buyers about the origin and condition of looted antiquities so that he could, in turn, capitalise on this veneer of legitimacy by dramatically increasing their value.

Among other items, Smith allegedly restored include a Siva Nataraja idol with an estimated value of $5 million, and one of Uma Parvati with an estimated value of $3.5 million.

Commenting on the development, S. Vijay Kumar, co-founder of India Pride, said, “Smith altered the colour of the stolen Sripuranthan Nataraja by giving it a fake greenish patina and even made a new hand for the Nataraja from Sri Narambu Nathar, Pazhavoor. Sadly, the law enforcing agencies in India did not follow up. Now the U.S. has successfully managed to get Smith arrested and we are sure investigation will reveal more such cases. We hope India joins the U.S. in this case at least now.”

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