Nepali and Tibetan Buddhists in Austria are carrying out regular puja at the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna in front of a 17th century Dipankar stolen from Patan in January.
The Buddha was confiscated in April after a German art dealer tried to sell it to the museum. The gilded copper mask is being displayed at the entrance hall of the museum while the Austrian authorities wait for the Nepal government to make an official request for the return of the image.
Among the devotees worshipping the Buddha recently was Nono Bista, the niece of the Raja of Mustang seen here laying a khata at the altar. "It is sad. This Buddha is of such great religious significance to us," she said. "I am grateful for the museum's intervention, and pray that the image can be returned to Nepal soon." Butter lamps and offerings adorn the base of the stand on which the Buddha is kept in the museum's foyer..
The Dipankar Buddha was stolen from a family custodian in Nag Bahal in Patan on the night of 17 January this year (see "Lost and Found Buddha", Nepali Times #94). It resurfaced when the German dealer tried to sell it to the Vienna Ethnographic Museum in April. But the Museum's curator for the Himalaya and South Asia, Dr Christian Schicklgurber suspected that the image may have been stolen.
"The art dealer called me and offered to sell me a golden Buddha head from Nepal," recalls Schicklgruber. "On 29 April, he came to Vienna and showed us his object. We were quite surprised. Never before had I seen anything quite so beautiful."
The Buddha's head turned out to be a rare, and larger-than-life size Dipankar Buddha mask from the 17th century which is venerated in the annual Samyak procession in Patan. The head is about one meter high, made of copper and bronze, fire-gilded and painted. It is richly adorned with cut crystals, turquoise and other precious stones.
"The art dealer wanted 200,000 Euros for it, a price which in international comparison didn't appear unreasonably high to me, in view of the rarity, age and quality of the object," Schicklgruber said. "We asked for a week of consideration. The dealer agreed and left the Buddha with us in our depot."
Now things had to move quickly. It had to be determined how the Buddha came to be in Europe, and whether it was stolen. Schicklgruber contacted a Nepal expert at the Department of Tibetology and Buddhism at Vienna University who in turn emailed a photo and description of the Buddha to a colleague in Kathmandu.
The answer came promptly the next day: yes, this was the very Dipankar Buddha stolen from Nag Bahal. A Nepal police report of the theft was also sent. Austrian police and Interpol were then notified, and the Buddha was confiscated by court order to be stored at the museum until it could be legally repatriated to Nepal.
The Austrian state prosecutor began investigation, and lawyers in Vienna, Germany, and the Royal Nepal Embassy in Berlin have been looking at the legal implications. The Buddha consists of five components (head, crown, necklace and ear pendants) and all five bear the seal of Nepal's Department of Archaeology, which could be genuine or fake.The seal is required to take any religious object out of Nepal. The department was reportedly informed about the theft only on 15 March.
Did the five parts get their export-approval seals from the department before that day? And there are other questions: who were the thieves, was bribery involved, who were the middlemen, can the German dealer prove that he was acting in "good faith"?
But these questions don't trouble Schicklgruber. He only wants to find out the fastest way to get the Buddha back to Nepal. He says, "This image plays an important role in the living, religious culture of Nepal, in particular the Buddhists of Patan."
Erwin Melchart is a journalist with the Vienna paper, Kronen Zeitung