The image of a 200-year-old Dipankar Buddha which was stolen from a guthi in Patan the night of 17 January has been found in Austria, and the legal process has begun to repatriate it to Nepal.
The gilded copper mask of the Buddha was in the custody of a family in Nag Bahal when it was stolen. It resurfaced when a well-known Cologne-based art dealer, Gallery Peter Hardt, tried to sell it to the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna this week for an asking price of 200,000 Euros ($180,000).
The museum's curator, Dr Christian Schicklgruber, suspected that the Buddha image may be stolen and he checked with the Institut fur S?dasien, Tibet und Buddhizmus of Vienna University.
Tibetologists at the university immediately sent a picture of the image on offer to Min Bahadur Shakya of the Nagarjuna Institute in Kathmandu, who confirmed that it was the Buddha from Nag Bahal.
"As soon as we got the Internet attachment, I checked with three other stolen Patan Buddhas, and it was very clear that it was one of ours," an ecstatic Shakya told us. "We only hear about idol thefts, we rarely hear of stolen religious artifacts being recovered. It is a big victory and a very happy day for us."
What saved the Buddha was some very fast footwork between Schicklgruber at the Ethnographic Museum, the University and Shakya in Kathmandu. This evidence was sufficient to convince the Austrian public prosecutor to confiscate the image on suspicion of being stolen property. A case against the German gallery has been filed in Vienna. Currently Austrian police are working with their German colleagues and the Royal Nepalese Embassy in Berlin to develop the case.
When told that he was peddling a stolen object, the art dealer reportedly said: "I'd rather not take this matter to Kathmandu, it will stir a hornet's nest."
An ethnographic expert in Kathmandu told us it is rare for a museum curator to turn in stolen objects, and was full of praise for Schicklgruber. "It is very unusual for the museum to call the cops," he said. But it may not be so easy to get the necessary court order to bring the Buddha back to Nepal sinc, according to Austrian law, pieces bought in good faith are regarded as private property-even if they are stolen.
Even so, Shakya in Kathmandu and his colleagues in Vienna are working to quickly get the paperwork on the authenticity of the Buddha as well as proof of Nepali laws against the smuggling of religious artifacts to Vienna, so the court has the necessary documents to decide on the matter. Shakya is the author of the book, Sacred Art of Nepal, and he feels the court's decision to return the Buddha to Nepal will set a precedent and deter future theft of Nepali religious artifacts. He thinks it will have great symbolism to have the Dipankar back in time for Buddha Jayanti on 26 May.
The gilded cast copper Dipankar Buddha is one of the 108 Buddhas that are paraded through Patan and exhibited at the annual Samyak festival. There are two other Samyak Buddha figures that have also been stolen in recent years from guthis in Patan.
Shakya says it is now important for the Nepali authorities to claim the return of the Buddha. "The more voices are raised in Nepal, the more the moral pressure on the Austrian courts to return the image," he says. Meanwhile the German gallery which had printed this picture of the Dipankar in its catalogue has removed all other Nepali images from its web site http://www.hardt.de.
Other art historians say the fact that the Buddha took only five months to surface after its theft shows how brazen art thieves have now become. Usually they let stolen art objects "cool" for a few years before offering them for sale. "Art smugglers must feel very safe to try to sell it so quickly," said an expert in Buddhist sacred art in Kathmandu.
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