Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good evening. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here today in this historic location with Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, who has been such a great leader of his nation and such a valued partner to the United States. President Obama has said that the relationship between India and the United States has the potential to be one of the defining partnerships of this century. Together, our vibrant economies, our strong militaries, our rich cultures and our shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law can play an outstanding role in advancing towards a more just, a more secure and a more prosperous world. Today, it is my pleasure to represent the president as we fortify that partnership by returning these remarkable treasures to the people of India; as we reaffirm our commitment to dialogue and cooperation; and as we strengthen the bond of trust and mutual respect between our nations.
The theft and illicit trafficking of cultural property is one of the oldest and most pernicious forms of international crime. It reduces objects of religious, cultural and historical significance to mere units of exchange. It robs not just one person, but millions of people, of objects whose value cannot be fully expressed in terms of money. And it impoverishes our collective knowledge of and respect for the past – knowledge and respect that are so essential to our pursuit of a brighter future.
The United States understands the devastating impact of these crimes. We are a nation that takes great pride in our own objects of cultural import. We house our founding documents in splendor just a few blocks from here, at the National Archives. We go to great lengths to preserve our historic structures, like Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, or indeed, this very house, where so many great questions of foreign relations have been decided. And we display our great artistic achievements in galleries and museums from coast to coast for people from around the world to appreciate and enjoy. We spare no expense or effort to protect our own heritage – and we are determined to do our part to help protect the heritage of others. We are committed to ensuring that no nation is robbed of the objects that inform its identity, shape its traditions and inspire its citizens, which is why America’s federal law enforcement agencies – including the Department of Justice and our partners at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – work tirelessly with our international partners to combat the theft and smuggling of valuable cultural artifacts and antiquities.
This evening, I am proud to preside over the formal completion of just one of our endeavors to combat trafficking in cultural property. On behalf of President Obama, it is my great privilege to return these marvelous objects to the people of India. And while Homeland Security Secretary [Jeh] Johnson is unable to be here tonight, I want to recognize his tremendous leadership on this issue and I want to congratulate the incredible diligence and hard work of DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations in this operation – especially the efforts of New York HSI Special Agent in Charge Angel Melendez and his team, particularly Special Agent Brenton Easter. Their excellent investigative work made this ceremony possible today. I also want to applaud the ICE Homeland Security Investigations and CBP teams in New York, Detroit and Honolulu, as well as the ICE Attaché in New Delhi, for working across borders to find these incredible objects.
I would also like to thank the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, as well as the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, for their invaluable collaboration with ICE in working to prosecute these crimes. Finally, I want to acknowledge my colleagues in the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs – and their Indian counterparts – for their exemplary work in the mutual legal assistance exchanges that helped recover a number of these objects and secure them for the Indian people.
The pieces you see here today represent just a fraction of the collection seized by ICE as part of Operation Hidden Idol, whose primary suspect is Subhash Kapoor. This operation uncovered one of the largest antiquities smuggling operations on U.S. soil, resulting in the recovery of more than 3,000 artifacts – including religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta art that are over 2,000 years old. Collectively, the recovered objects are valued at more than $150 million.
Of course, dollars are a poor measure of the true worth of these pieces. For the people of India, these objects cannot be appraised by the whims of the market. They represent India’s rich heritage – the imagination of its thinkers and the skill of its artists; the beauty of its land and the vitality of its people; the endurance of its religions and the influence of its philosophies. And so they belong in India, with the Indian people – and today, that is where they are headed. Today, more than 200 antiquities and cultural artifacts that speak to India’s astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home, where they can be studied and reflected upon for generations to come. It is my hope – and the hope of the American people – that this repatriation will serve as a sign of our great respect for India’s culture, our deep admiration for its people and our sincere appreciation for the ties between our nations.
Prime Minister Modi, it is my honor this evening to return what rightfully belongs to you and to all the people of your great country. I want to thank you for being here. I want to thank your authorities for their cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. And I want to pledge my ongoing support to our common efforts to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of both of our peoples – now and for all posterity. Thank you.