Subhash Kapoor, a former Manhattan art dealer, has been charged by authorities in New York with trafficking more than $145 million in stolen antiquities from several countries.
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 artifacts, including statues and ancient masterworks, newsreports said.
A criminal complaint filed in Manhattan state court said the smuggling was orchestrated by Kapoor, 70, who was arrested in Germany in 2011 and later extradited to India, where he faces similar charges.
The prosecution involves artifacts 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 Vance Jr. was quoted as saying in newsreports. "They are of enormous value."
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 stolen property.
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 artifacts, many of them statues of Hindu deities, and then falsified their provenance with forged documents.
It says Kapoor traveled the world seeking out antiquities that had been looted from temples, homes and archaeological sites.
Some of the artifacts 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."