An interview of retired US Homeland Security Department agent, Mr Domenic DiGiovanni on the stolen heritage of India.
A telephonic interview of retired US Homeland Security Department agent, Mr Domenic DiGiovanni (DD), on the subject of stolen antiquities from India. The following is the transcript of his conversation with Ashish Dhar (AD).
AD – How did you get involved in the field of stolen antiquities and what role did you play in it?
DD – I was a US customs officer for some time and worked in the cargo department, which was my area of expertise. And probably around 2008, I became acquainted with a special agent named Mr. Brenton Easter. He was the main agent who was involved with cultural property and heritage in New York City. We struck up a conversation about cultural heritage, which at that time wasn’t on my radar extensively. But I did deal with artefacts, antiquities, and related items from time to time.
I was doing some work with Iraqi artefacts in the early 2000s and it was around then that Mr Easter told me a story about India and how they were looking for stolen antiquities. There was a certain individual and that was Mr Kapoor I figured later. I started focusing more on objects, especially from India. As our relationship progressed, it became obvious that the antiquity work that I was doing could not be done as efficiently with all the other Customs work. So with the permission of my superiors, I specifically got involved with antiquities. I worked with Agent Easter quite closely and we did so on several different cases. This just happened to be one of them and was probably one of our most famous cases together. As a Customs Inspector, I would read and record all the information on imports coming in and would then hand it off to the special agents. If there was anything of interest, we would look at it further. We would detain it as long as we possibly could or were allowed by law, to get information about specific objects that were brought into the country. I was sharing all my information with Homeland Security for goods coming in from any part of the world, not just India.
AD – An operation called Operation Hidden Idol had been in the news and has gained a lot of attention. Could you tell me a little bit more about it, how it got started, and how it eventually proceeded?
DD – The Interpol had arrested four people in a smuggling case after which we gathered more information about those particular imports. These imports were specifically from India and as more information came in, we found out that other countries too were involved and it was a multinational network. Agent Easter was one of the lead Homeland Security agents in New York City as he knew about antiquities smuggling. The case started with information drawn from earlier ones which special agents had done on arts and antiquities. Those cases had led us to a database of information about different places, people, and methodologies used to smuggle antiquities. And it just evolved with this particular case with India and other countries, eventually being nicknamed Operation Hidden Idol.
AD – After having watched the documentary, ‘Blood Buddhas’, on stolen antiquities, I understand that this is a huge international racket with multiple currencies and trade routes involved. So as an expert in this area, how complex and advanced do you think is the whole mafia of art and heritage in the global market?
DD – It is one of the top crimes around the world coming in probably at number three depending on how the numbers are analysed and hence is a very big undertaking among criminals. From my experience with Iraqi smuggling, I realised that there was a global network. I gathered information, looked at my previous seizures of art and antiquities, and then started to put all the names together. I noticed links between these people and that they were all connected. And this also was true in this particular case, as in Operation Hidden Idol, that even though there were just a few key cities around the world, different players in those cities performed different tasks that contributed to the flourishing of this network.
A lot of times there were just lone actors who would steal something to make a profit or were directed to steal for a share of the profit. But this idea of networks, even from my research, has proved out to be true that there are several smuggling networks among different countries around the world.
AD – The documentary Blood Buddhas, as well as a report of the United Nations Security Council, suggests that there is a link with terror funding. How serious is the claim?
DD – I would say that after the incident with the US military where they raided one of ISIS’s compounds, a lot of information was gathered and it was found that if it wasn’t directly from the sale of stolen antiquities, it certainly was from the fees they charged from people in their network in ISIS. They would find antiquities, dig them up, sell them from one person in the chain to another till it reached one who was in charge of the permits for the antiquities. In this way, they took over the movement of antiquities in their countries as after all, it is a very big crime and an easy way of making a lot of money quickly, especially for people who are at the top of the chain. So I do agree that there are hints and certain clues to establish a probable terror link and it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw.
AD – When we talk about the loot of Indian antiquities, what is the scale of the loot? And would you have any estimate of the number of items of Indian origin that must be in the USA right now or at least the numbers recovered to date?
DD – From just that one case – the Kapoor case – they had numbers in the hundreds. And from the report that I saw last year in March or May of 2019, there were actually three hundred idols that were in the United States that the ASI went over to identify. There have even been cases over time where we have seized Indian artefacts from various other individuals. But the exact overall number is difficult to come about as we really don’t know. It’s not something that is on the front-burner in law enforcement prioprities in the United States.
AD – So how many stolen Indian artefacts would you estimate are in the USA?
DD – I would say that’s a very difficult answer to come up with because it’s not something that is on the front burner of law enforcement in the United States. It’s the same thing in India as it is not looked into seriously. So it’s very difficult to quantify the exact number but I’d say that it would be a lot more than one could imagine.
AD – Among the items that were unearthed and found in that raid, what would be the total value of that raid?
DD – That raid is approximately 106 million US dollars worth of antiquities were found.
AD – That’s just one such raid and there would be many such raids as you were saying. Could that help ascertain the total worth of items stolen?
DD – Just to put it in perspective, the US is allegedly the number one importing country for Indian artefacts in the world. So, as you said, that number would be staggering.
AD – Let me shift our attention to what was found and offered in 2015 by the US to India, a total of two hundred murtis for India to take back. What is the story behind those murtis?
DD – From what I know, around 24 were returned in 2015. The United States wants to see the case finalized in India so that the guilty could be extradited to the US and have an ongoing trial. All the murtis cannot be returned for two reasons. One reason is that they have to be identified and their origins established to a specific place for India to claim them. The other reason is that they need the evidence to have a case and as the murtis are the evidence, the US can’t return them until they have their case finalized.
AD – What is the kind of support that the U.S. agencies have gotten from India? Have the Indian authorities been proactive, regularly following up or is it that the US is pushing them to take back their own antiquities? And how is the balance there in terms of just the pro-activeness from the governments?
DD – I understand that getting information from India is not as timely as one would want it in the United States and it was difficult to get things going. At one point, I know that Agent Easter and his colleagues went to Tamil Nadu, India to push it along a little bit and see the ground situation and ascertain where the items were taken from in order to have a conversation with the Indian side. The whole process is not very cohesive in India as you have the national authorities, the state authorities, the local authorities, and they’re all at a different level, not only in terms of knowledge but also how important they deem Indian heritage to be. And they all have different opinions on it and everybody is not working together to try and solve the problem. They’re more at odds with each other within India than with people outside like the US who are trying to assist.
AD – Does this difference in priorities stem from the center being more interested and the states not cooperating or is it that the states want it but the center is not able to pull its weight?
DD – That’s a difficult question. I would say from research and my reading about these things, that it’s a very difficult problem to solve in the country. It’s hard to come to a consensus on how to proceed as there are many facets and areas to the problem. There’s apathy within all levels of government in India, so you really cannot point a finger at anyone in particular who would be more to blame. There is an awareness problem coupled with an education problem in dealing with heritage in the country. And there’s also a statistical problem, as no one really knows what they have and have lost in terms of heritage and specific items due to the lack of a national database.
AD – Given that it’s an international racket and the kind of layers that are involved, it is well beyond what any local police force would be able to handle. Do you think that it would be a good idea to have a specialized task force developed and assigned for this racket?
DD – Absolutely. One of the problems in your country is that the focus on antiquities is minuscule as it’s not considered important. From my understanding, the police don’t want to do their work and in some places, they are relegated to antiquity detail as punishment because they weren’t performing to a proper standard in their normal work. It’s the same thing in the United States as there are enough officers but the police agents lack the level of knowledge to do their work. There needs to be an educational base built up for them to do their work efficiently and I think that’s the same problem in India.
But a task force would make it a priority to train people and focus on antiquities and art. The problem is massive as there are so many temples, so many antiquities to watch over and not enough people, even at the local level. For instance, if you have a local temple that’s closed for a certain recorded time between sessions, it won’t have guards. It is left to the local people a lot of the times to watch over the temple but they don’t have the financial infrastructure to hire people and protect it. It starts from that lower level, then the temple one level up and goes up from there to the police force in the state that coordinates with the national level. And if you have a task force, they would help coordinate everything from training to finance.
AD – Don’t you think that that the lack of resource deployment in your country in the US is understandable, as your heritage wasn’t taken away while a country like India is losing heritage every single day?
DD – I definitely agree with that. When I say that the problem is similar in both countries, it is with regard to the police, knowledge, and training in fighting the crime. In that respect, it is the same but the problem is a lot different because you’re losing your heritage every day, constantly. On top of that, there’s a big distinction between India and everyone else as these are not just artistic statues but are deities. The importance of deities within your culture is paramount and when you lose deities in local areas, the culture there is lost as well, it starts to deteriorate. This is where the biggest issue with Indian heritage is I feel because it’s not just art, it also has a religious aspect to it, which is the center of Indian culture.
AD – You are absolutely right, that is the center of Indian culture. Does it lead to disillusionment when you’re offering India her heritage back, and her children are not doing much at both a personal and strategic level? Is there also strategic re-prioritization if a particular government seems disinterested or not committed?
DD – Yes, there is disillusionment as personally, it’s frustrating to see as an outsider the apathy and the lack of importance given to heritage. I’m sure there are several reasons for it, given that it is an integral part of your culture. I recall that Prime Minister Modi mentioned the importance of educating school children about the particular heritage in their area, so they could learn about it and understand its importance. This can build more awareness and help solve the problem if more people are involved.
It’s difficult to be on the outside to see that there’s so much friction between different entities in India, whether it’s political or judicial, in law enforcement, or even among the local citizenry. You have many different opinions going back and forth that are not driven by one main idea and focus. So the answer is yes to your first question. As far as your second question goes, anything that we can do to assist whether it’s someone in our country here in the United States, an individual or corporation or a national entity like India, we do all it takes to stop crime. There’s no level of importance ascribed to something based on how another country responds. We do our job regardless of external factors.
AD – If there is no level of importance dedicated to like in India, does it mean that you don’t make it a priority?
DD – I don’t think that’s the case. As far as my involvement over the years in my career, it was all-important. We put a lot of effort into doing our job in assisting other countries and getting their case finalized. A good finality to a situation is when everything is repatriated back to the home country. In your particular case, it’s no less important than any other country’s heritage. It is still important and ongoing for the investigating agencies in the US who are deeply involved having spent years on them.
AD – Thank you for your time, I really appreciate the insight you have given.
DD – Goodbye.