An art dealer who authorities called one of the most prolific smugglers in the world and seven others were charged with trafficking more than $140 million in stolen antiquities, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Authorities described the case as one of the largest of its kind, saying the conspiracy began more than three decades ago and involved more than 2,600 recovered artefacts, including statues and ancient masterworks.
A criminal complaint filed in Manhattan state court said the smuggling was orchestrated by Subhash Kapoor, a New York art gallery owner who was arrested in Germany in 2011 and later extradited to India, where he faces similar charges.
An email seeking comment was sent to Kapoor's defence attorney.
The prosecution involves artefacts stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Pakistan and other countries that were sold for profit to dealers and collectors around the world. Some of the items appeared in world-renowned museums without officials realizing they were ill-gotten gains.
"These are, in many instances, priceless works that represent the culture and history of the countries from which they were stolen," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr. told The Associated Press in an interview. "They are of enormous value."
In all, authorities said, the network trafficked more than $143 million worth of antiquities. The international investigation was called "Operation Hidden Idol."
The US Department of Homeland Security has described Kapoor as "one of the most prolific art smugglers in the world." He faces 86 counts in the criminal complaint, including grand larceny and criminal possession of the stolen property.
The lead prosecutor, Matthew Bogdanos, told the AP that none of the defendants is believed to be in the United States. He said the authorities asked Interpol to issue international warrants for their arrest.
Kapoor, 70, owned the Art of the Past gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which authorities raided in early 2012.
The criminal complaint says Kapoor went to extraordinary lengths to acquire the artefacts, many of them statues of Hindu deities and then falsified their provenance with forged documents.
It says Kapoor travelled the world seeking out antiquities that had been looted from temples, homes and archaeological sites.
Some of the artefacts were recovered from Kapoor's storage units in New York.
Prosecutors said Kapoor had the items cleaned and repaired to remove any damage from illegal excavation, and then illegally exported them to the United States from their countries of origin.
"Kapoor would also loan stolen antiquities to major museums and institutions," the complaint says, "creating yet another false veneer of legitimacy by its mere presence in otherwise reputable museums and institutions."
The other defendants in the case include suppliers and restorers accused of conspiring with Kapoor.