A Dipankara Buddha stolen from Patan's Nag Bahal nearly two years ago finally flew home from Vienna on Thursday night just in time for the Newari New Year. The Buddha's odyssey began when a German art dealer tried to sell it for $180,000 to the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna three months after it was stolen (See Nepali Times, 'Lost-and-found Buddha', #94).
Due to the rare quality of the image, the museum staff was immediately suspicious, and scholars in Nepal identified the gilded copper image as one of the 108 Buddhas that are paraded through Patan at the annual Samyak festival.
The art dealer relinquished claim to the figure, allowing the Austrian government to secure the Buddha in police custody. It was kept in the lobby of the Vienna museum, where it was worshipped regularly by Austrian Buddhists (see pic), while legal wranglings between the Austrian and German authorities delayed repatriation.
Experts say the Dipankara case illustrates the global trend that stolen artifacts are no longer acceptable for sale on the international art market. Still, less than ten of the countless religious objects stolen from Nepal have ever been returned.
"What upsets me most was that this image was stolen out of a living tradition," says Buddhist scholar, Alexander Rospatt. "It shouldn't go back to a museum here, that would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise." At Nag Bahal this week, local guthiyas said their Buddha had gone on a 'little vacation' and they heard rumours that he was coming back soon.