Was it worth it Richard?

Close to the heart of any successful antiquities trafficking racket lurks a restorer/conservator, sometimes more than one. Restorers repair and clean antiquities in such a way as to improve their appearance and durability, and thus desirability. Removing dirt or other accretions from the surface of an antiquity exposes its original finish and detail, while in the process uncovering any evidence of past repairs or forged modifications. Such work helps establish the identity, condition, authenticity and quality of a piece, while improving its appearance and aesthetic appeal, all important factors for determining value and setting price. But restoration work of this type might also destroy evidence of looting or theft. It could involve fixing together a recently broken object, perhaps a stolen one broken into pieces to expedite transport or passage through customs. Thus while the ostensible purpose of restoration is to stabilise and curate an antiquity, at the same time it improves the value of an antiquity, promotes its saleability, and might even remove evidence of theft or illegal trade.

Restorers do not often figure in criminal cases relating to antiquities trafficking. In December 2016, a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office against New York Asian Art dealer Nancy Wiener identified two unnamed restorers as ‘co-conspirators’, though no charges were pressed. It was timely then on 8 July 2019, when the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges relating to antiquities trafficking against Subhash Kapoor and seven alleged co-conspirators, including restorers Neil Perry Smith in the United Kingdom and Richard Salmon in New York. The complaint contains a wealth of information about the activities of these restorers, with Kapoor sending metal objects to Perry Smith and stone objects to Salmon, an indication perhaps of Kapoor’s estimation of their respective talents. Of course, a criminal charge isn’t in itself definitive proof of wrongdoing, and the named restorers remain innocent until proven guilty. But looking through the complaint at what is revealed about Salmon, for example, it is not hard to see why charges were levelled at him. Multiple invoices provide information about his services, which include such actions as ‘cleaning’, ‘picking out detail’, ‘bringing out the quality of the stone’, and ‘mounting’. All this sounds innocent enough, the normal bread-and-butter work of a restorer. But what about when he claimed payment for ‘picking out details with “ancient earth”’ and ‘touching out “new breaks”’? Why would he add ‘ancient earth’ to a piece, and was he not suspicious about the cause of ‘new breaks’, and breaks more generally?

In early 2006, for example, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in India and took possession in New York of a second-century BC sandstone Mahakoka Devata or Yakshi (Bharhut Pillar). The pillar had been stolen from the home of an Indian resident in July 2004 and appears to have been broken into four pieces for shipment to New York. Kapoor valued it at $15 million. On 2 May 2006, Salmon charged $11,500 for reassembling the four pieces by drilling and joining them with dowels, subsequently filling and disguising joins, including making up missing areas of the bottom, touching out scratches and bringing up the lustre of stone. On 5 January 2012 DHS-HSI agents seized the Pillar from New York storage.

In autumn 2006, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in India and took possession in New York of nine objects stolen in August 2006 from the Vishnu Varaha Temple in Kari Talai, Madhya Pradesh, India. They included a pair of eleventh-century, sandstone celestial Apsaras (Pair of Apsaras), originally joined as one piece though separated and damaged by the time they reached New York. Kapoor valued them at $95,000 each. On 9 October 2006, Salmon charged $1,700 for making up missing sections, cleaning, touching out ‘new breaks’, picking out details and enhancing colour of the stone. But he repaired and prepared for sale each Apsara separately and failed to restore the original integrity (and thus appearance) of the piece. On 26 July 2012, the Apsaras were in storage in New York though their present whereabouts are unknown.

In repairing broken objects and more generally patching and cleaning, knowingly or not Salmon’s work might have been important for hiding evidence of theft and illegal trade and improving saleability, but in relative terms he does not appear to have been very well paid for his services. As can be seen from the table below, the money charged by Salmon for his work was very little compared to that made or expected to be made by Kapoor. Altogether, for 24 jobs on material valued by Kapoor at approximately $31 million, Salmon charged only $84,875, or 0.27 per cent of the material’s prospective retail value. Given the element of risk involved for Salmon, working as he was on suspect material, he seems not to have factored the risk into his pricing strategy. Perhaps he was unaware of the dubious provenance of the material he was working on. Perhaps it was simply because a sense of professional impunity encouraged him to minimise his risk assessment. Remembering that before Kapoor restorers had not figured in criminal indictments, perhaps Salmon simply thought that it would never happen to him. Well, it has now. Given that Salmon finds himself named on a criminal complaint, he might regret charging such relatively small sums of money. Perhaps other restorers are taking note and adjusting their prices accordingly.

Object (as named in complaint) Kapoor valuation (v=valuation, s=actual selling price) Salmon charge Percentage object value
Monumental Buddha Head $4.5 million (v) $750 0.02
Herakles with sword $1.75 million (v) $3,300 0.19
Quranic Wall Tiles $485,000 (v+s) $24,850 5.12
Shakyamuni Buddha $2.5 million (v) $3,800 0.15
Bharhut Pillar $15 million (v) $11,500 0.08
Stone Ganesha $500,000 (v) $1,500 0.3
Torso of a Celestial Figure $75,000 (v) $2,600 3.47
Torso of a Devata $450,000 (v) $1,550 0.34
Dancing Ganesha $75,000 (v) $900 1.2
Salabhanjika $155,000 (v) $850 0.55
Pair of Apsaras $190,000 (v) $1,700 0.89
Divine Couple $75,000 (v) $950 1.27
Celestial Figure $75,000 (v) $2,250 3.0
Apsara with Lotus $75,000 (v) $750 1.0
Celestial Pulling Thorn $225,000 (v) $1,500 0.67
Kubera $1.5 million (v) $4,850 0.32
Linga $275,000 (s) $575 0.21
Pallava Shiva $650,000 (v) $2,150 0.33
Balasubrahmanya $225,000 (v) $2,150 0.96
Drum Pilaster $750,000 (v) $5,750 0.77
Worshippers Relief $585,000 (s) $2,000 0.34
Pratyangira $247,000 (s) $1,800 0.73
Ardhanari $225,000 (s) $1,950 0.87
Dwarapalas $495,000 (s) $4,900 0.99
       
Totals $31,082,000 $84,875  

Nevertheless, even if Salmon was underselling himself, he was clearly doing good business with Kapoor. The prices tabulated above are only for a small number of objects. The complaint contains details of 15 separate invoices over a nine-year period, tabulated below, each invoice itemising a larger number of objects than described in the complaint. Looking at the invoices, it is also clear that they represent only a part of the total work performed by Salmon for Kapoor in any one year. The 14 November 2003 invoice, for example, also presents unpaid claims dated back to 5 September and 15 September totalling $5,305, in addition to even older unsettled bill of $17,390, though presumably in November still for work conducted in 2003. The invoices for these claims are not available for inspection. So in 2003, Salmon must have charged Kapoor more than the $46,110 evident on invoices, perhaps much more. In 2006, the year for which there are most invoices, Salmon charged a minimum of $39,655. Still not a large sum of money for a New York-based business though.

Invoice date Bill  
12 June 2002 $3,700 +$8,435
16 September 2002 $12,540  
5 December 2002 $13,245 +$5,550
13 March 2003 $17,665  
14 November 2003 $5,750 + bills of 5 Sept and 15 Sept totalling $5,305, plus old bill $17,390
10 November 2004 $3,800  
7 September 2005 $11,050 +$6,070 owed
18 February 2006 $14,030 +$7,380 owed
2 May 2006 $11,500 +$11,060 owed
20 September 2006 $4,200 +$9,620 owed
9 October 2006 $9,925 +$13,820 owed
8 February 2007 $36,260 +$3,745 owed
9 March 2007 $8,250 +$39,750 owed
15 March 2008 $24,850  
21 April 2009 $43,350 +$11,300 owed

Restorers are crucial to the ongoing health of the antiquities market. Whether they know it or not, their work effectively launders trafficked antiquities and facilitates their entry into legitimate commerce. Having said that, most restorers do not work on trafficked or even suspect antiquities. Those that do must comprise only a handful, but that is all it takes, and they have in the past been able to believe themselves out of the reach of the law. The Kapoor complaint changes all that. It remains to be seen whether or not the charges will stick, but the very fact that restorers are named must send a chill warning through the profession. It is time for them to clean up their game. It just isn’t worth it. A more hostile environment for restorers will reduce their willingness to work with suspect material and should act to improve their due diligence. Upping their game in this way will make it much more difficult for dealers to bring trafficked antiquities to market. Even if the charges against Salmon don’t stick, by naming a pair of restorers, the complaint has highlighted a potential weakness of the antiquities trade and shown how to exploit it.