Nepal needs to be prepared before it demands the return of its stolen religious figures from foreign collections
Nathalie Bazin, the Chief Curator of the Himalayan Section at the Musée Guimet in Paris, made a dramatic announcement at an international conference in Kathmandu this week on the protection of Asia’s heritage.
12th century figure of Vishnu with Lakshmi and Garuda was stolen from Chyasalhiti, Patan in the late 1970s and is currently at Musée Guimet in Paris.
Her museum was willing to return to Nepal the priceless and exquisitely carved 11th century figure of Uma Maheswor that was stolen from Bhaktapur in 1984 and 12th century figure of Vishnu with Lakshmi and Garuda stolen from Chyasalhiti, Patan in the late 1970s. At that time, there was no record of the idols missing and Bazin says the Musée Guimet was willing to send the figures back as long as they would be displayed and not put under lock and key.
“The museum wanted to hand the Uma Maheswor and Vishnu back to Nepal earlier, but the discussions didn’t go ahead,” Bazin told Nepali Times, “we hope to overcome the frustrating and difficult delays and hopefully have the idol back in its country by 2015.”
When it was stolen 30 years ago, the Uma Maheswor was being actively worshipped by devotees in Kathmandu Valley, like hundreds of other religious objects that were sold and smuggled out of the country in the great plunder of the 1980s when many temples were ransacked.
A 12th-century stone sculpture of Uma-Maheswor stolen from Wotol in Dhulikhel in 1985 had changed hands of many art dealers before ending up on a lonely pedestal in the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin. The 62cm limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati with attendant deities on Mount Kailash was an object of devotion and worship when it was stolen. The Berlin museum bought it from an art gallery in Wiesbaden in 1985 for about $50,000. It was returned in 2000 and is now at the Patan Museum.
Interactive Map by Ayesha Shakya
Many of Nepal’s stolen religious objects have now been inventoried thanks to the painstaking work of art historians and researchers like Nepal’s Lain Singh Bangdel and Jürgen Schick. Bangdel’s 1989 book, Stolen Images of Nepal, and Schick’s The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal, have provided valuable pictorial documentation of the objects in situ in the temples and bahals of Kathmandu.
In the absence of reliable records at the Department of Archaeology (DoA), the two books are about the only proof that can help Nepal to demand the return of stolen artefacts.
Schick and Dina, Bangdel’s daughter, were among 140 participants at the conference organised by UNESCO. Art scholars from Asia, Europe, USA, and South America discussed about possible regional and international collaboration among concerned stake holders to prevent illicit trading of cultural property. The event was picking up from where it left off after a previous meeting in 2001 that adopted the Kathmandu Declaration on the illegal trade in cultural property. That declaration urged the Nepal government to update laws against trafficking in heritage property. But the conflict put everything on hold.
UNESCO head Axel Plathe now looks forward to strengthening transboundary cooperation to curb trafficking of cultural heritage. “The symposium’s outcomes will foster our fight against illegal trade of artworks in South Asia.We made good progress to develop a common strategy for the prevention of illegal traffic and the restitution of illicitly traded objects,” says Plathe.
10th century figure of Uma-Maheswor (left) stolen from Gahiti in Patan in the mid 1960s is now at Denver Museum in the US. Whereabouts of the Chaturmukha Shivalingam (right) stolen from Dakshinamurti Tol, Deopatan around the same time remains unkown.
Bhesh Narayan Dahal, director general of the DoA is confident about coming up with a comprehensive inventory by next year. “We are already working on the inventory and are still trying to convince local communities and families to help us with the documentation since many of the artefacts belong to families here,” explains Dahal. The DoA has started working with the Crime Investigation Bureau and INTERPOL to track down stolen religious objects.
Foreign museums want guarantees that returned figures aren’t stolen again when they are restored to their original temples. A 400-year-old manuscript hand-drawn in ink and watercolours was stolen from the Patan Museum in 2003. The manuscript made up of 21 accordion-like folios containing tantric depictions of the energy centres of the human body had been on sale along with two smaller ones in the antiquity market in Nepal and was bought with Austrian funds for Rs 90,000 and donated to the Patan Museum in 1997. The Patan Museum Project thought the museum would be the best place to keep it, not just for its historic and educational value, but also so that it would not be exported.
The copper repoussé Laxmi Narayan and Garuda figure that was stolen from the Sundari Chok in Patan has now been replaced with a replica even though the original was found and will eventually be out on secure display
Jürgen Schick estimates that 90 per cent of rare and high quality idols have been stolen from Kathmandu since the 1960s. “The thefts have declined mostly because there isn’t much left to steal,” says Schick who first arrived in Kathmandu from Germany in 1973 as a tourist and was inspired to document the Valley’s cultural wealth. “Nepal needs to get its act together to bring back its idols since many art galleries and museums now don’t want their reputation at stake by being associated with stolen art.”
Scholars at the symposium said that when an idol that is still a part of everyday life in Kathmandu Valley is stolen, many customs, practices, and festivals also die off.
Says Dina Bangdel: “We need to create awareness that our religious images and paintings that are traded for thousands of dollars aren’t just works of art to be displayed at a museum or a collector’s living room, they are part of a living culture and tangible identity. We need to do our part to get them back home.”
Bangdel is now an Associate Professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and says it is important for young Nepalis to understand the importance of what has been lost in the last 50 years and the need to get the religious objects back.
She adds: “Now that our politics is finally back on track, we need to continue my father’s work and start the task of bringing back Nepal’s stolen artefacts.”
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Art scholars on Himalayan and Southeast Asian art in the US helped identify four painted wood covers of palm-leaf manuscripts as the property of the National Archive in Kathmandu which had been put up for auction to be sold at Christie’s on 19 March this year at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza.
They were pulled out after objections from academics and specialists of Himalayan art. They were identified based on comparison with images in an inventory created by the Nepal German Manuscript Project in 1970. One of them is a 12th century wood cover which is believed to be one of the oldest known painted art objects in Nepal. They were returned to the National Archive in August.