Art Restorer Faces Fraud Trial In $143M Global Trafficking Plot

Naga Buddha, a snake-like being, was among the stolen items allegedly restored by Neil Perry Smith. (Manhattan District Attorney Office's Antiquities Trafficking Unit/Zenger).

A British art restorer has been charged in a decades-old global trafficking scheme of Asian antiquities worth $143 million.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office extradited Neil Perry Smith from London to New York. He was indicted on July 20.

The suspect has been charged with possessing and restoring 22 stolen pieces of art believed to be worth more than $32 million. Charges include grand larceny, conspiracy and scheme to defraud. The indictment cites his alleged role in a “global antiquities trafficking ring that looted and smuggled culturally significant relics from Asia and sold them in New York’s art market,” the District Attorney’s Office said.

Smith is accused of concealing the pieces’ “illicit origin” so the “alleged conspiracy ringleader Subhash Kapoor could then sell them at his now-closed Madison Avenue-based gallery, Art of the Past.” Smith and Kapoor face charges along with six co-defendants.

Authorities spent three years investigating the alleged trafficking ring.

“From 2011 to 2020, the D.A.’s Office and HSI [U.S. Homeland Security Investigations] 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 USD 143 million,” the District Attorney’s Office said.

Works of art from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia and Myanmar, among other countries, are believed to have been sold illegally in New York.

Shiva Nataraja, depicting a dance posture, was among the stolen items allegedly possessed and restored by the British art restorer Neil Perry Smith. (Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Antiquities Trafficking Unit/Zenger)

“Without restorers to disguise stolen relics, there would be no laundered items for antiquities traffickers to sell,” said District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. “The arraignment of Neil Perry Smith serves as a reminder that behind every antiquity’s 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.

“Thanks to our Antiquities Trafficking Unit and our partners at HSI, Smith will now face justice on U.S. soil, and we look forward to seeing alleged ringleader Subhash Kapoor inside a Manhattan courtroom in the near future. In the meantime, we will continue to pursue these cases vigorously and return these stolen items to the countries from which they were stolen.”

The District Attorney’s Office stated how the scheme worked:

“Smith restored the bases of numerous bronze relics stolen from temples in India after smugglers intentionally broke them to facilitate illicit removal from the site and across international borders.

“After restoration, Kapoor housed the antiquities at his store or at one of his numerous storage units until it was sold or consigned. Smith’s restorations helped Kapoor mislead potential buyers about the origin and condition of looted antiquities so that Kapoor could, in turn, capitalize on this veneer of legitimacy by dramatically increasing values.

Another of the stolen items was this one depicting Uma Parvati, the personification of light, beauty and divine wisdom. (Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Antiquities Trafficking Unit/Zenger)

“In 2009, Kapoor purchased an 11th-century ceramic Khmer sculpture of a Buddha protected by a serpent (or “naga”) that was broken into at least 50 pieces.

“Kapoor paid Smith GBP 7,925 ($11,000) to remove three types of restoration, disassemble, clean joins, make up missing sections, reassemble, tone-in and mount” the 40-inch statue from Cambodia.

“After Smith completed the restoration, Kapoor created a false trail of provenance for the Naga Buddha, which he claimed was from Thailand, and later attempted to sell it for $1.2 million — an astronomical leap from the 5,504.45 value Kapoor declared on shipping documents for the item’s return transfer to the U.S. in June 2010.”

Edited by Fern Siegel and Judith Isacoff



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