Stolen Art

The gov­ern­ment of Nepal needs tto beb muchh more se­ri­ousi aboutb t bring­ing back the coun­try’s stolen trea­sures.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid

Nepal’s gov­ern­ment needs to take se­ri­ous mea­sures to bring back the coun­try’s stolen trea­sures.

It was cul­tural his­to­rian Lain Singh Bangdel who first no­ticed that the 13th cen­tury Uma-Ma­hesh­wor statue at the Musee Guimet in Paris was, in fact, Nepalese. The fig­urine in ques­tion de­picted the divine cou­ple on the Kailash Parbat and had re­port­edly been taken from its 900-year rest­ing place in Nasamna Tole, Bhak­ta­pur, in 1984. When the mu­seum learnt that the ar­ti­fact was stolen, it im­me­di­ately re­moved it from dis­play. Now, along with a 12th cen­tury stone statue of Vishnu, the Uma-Ma­hesh­wor gath­ers dust in a store­room at the Musee Guimet, far from ap­pre­cia­tive eyes and even far­ther from its cen­turies old home.

Statutes like th­ese once graced the Kathmandu Val­ley – they could be found on an­cient plinths and var­i­ous nooks and cran­nies. Sadly, as years went by, the ar­ti­facts slowly ‘dis­ap­peared’. It all started when Nepal opened its doors to trade in the 1950s. The global Asian art mar­ket saw a num­ber of Nepali stat­ues and other art pieces stolen by lo­cal thugs and traf­ficked out of the coun­try by elite, de­vel­op­ment work­ers and even some un­scrupu­lous diplo­mats.

It was only be­cause of the ef­forts of cru­saders like Bangdel – whose book of photographs of idols, ‘Stolen Images of Nepal’, is a primer on the theft of Nepali art – that the Nepali in­tel­li­gentsia came to know of the barefaced rob­bery of the coun­try's cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to Bangdel, almost all Nepali art that came into the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket over the last 30 to35 years was ob­tained through theft. Many of th­ese idols ended up in mu­se­ums, such as the New York's Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, or in the hands of pri­vate col­lec­tors and high-end auc­tion houses. In Septem­ber 2012, 10 Nepali ar­ti­facts, col­lec­tively worth over $200,000, were up for auc­tion at Christie’s in London and New York.

Some western mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tors, to their credit, have vol­un­tar­ily re­turned the stolen art. In 1994, an Amer­i­can col­lec­tor re­turned four idols – a 9th cen­tury Bud­dha, a 10th cen­tury Vishnu, a 12th cen­tury Saraswati and a 14th cen­tury Surya – after be­ing shown Bangdel's photographs. Sim­i­larly, four 12th cen­tury wooden man­u­script cov­ers were re­moved from auc­tion at Christie's in March 2013 after ev­i­dence of their hav­ing been stolen emerged. Paris' Musee Guimet has also pro­fessed in­ter­est in re­turn­ing the two stat­ues in its pos­ses­sion and claims that it is wait­ing for of­fi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion from the Nepal gov­ern­ment.

The gov­ern­ment of Nepal has a lot to do in­ter­na­tion­ally. So far, not a sin­gle at­tempt has been made by it to re­cover the stolen ar­ti­facts, which are prized pos­ses­sions in mu­se­ums around the world. Although Nepal has min­istries of cul­ture and for­eign af­fairs, no diplo­matic ef­forts have been made so far to com­mu­ni­cate to the for­eign coun­tries, their mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tors, that Nepal wants the stat­ues back. Per­haps the gov­ern­ment is not aware that Nepal is a sig­na­tory of the UN Con­ven­tion on the Means of Pro­hibit­ing and Pre­vent­ing the Il­licit Im­port, Ex­port and Trans­fer of Own­er­ship of Cul­tural Prop­erty, which al­lows a coun­try to ask other UN mem­ber states to re­turn stolen ar­ti­facts.

It is not dif­fi­cult to find th­ese ar­ti­facts. The big­gest mu­seum in the west, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, has a sep­a­rate Nepal sec­tion that ex­hibits a num­ber of stolen stat­ues and ar­ti­facts. If the Nepali gov­ern­ment is se­ri­ous about bring­ing the stolen art home, it should start with this mu­seum and give it the ev­i­dence. Con­sid­er­ing the ben­e­fit the mu­seum has reaped from the stolen Nepali art, it is the duty of the mu­seum to re­turn the stolen images to their right­ful place and per­haps even to as­sist the Nepali gov­ern­ment in their fu­ture preser­va­tion.

As for Nepali art be­ing sold through auc­tions to pri­vate col­lec­tors at high­end auc­tion houses like Sotheby’s in the UK or Christie’s in the U.S., the gov­ern­ment should deal di­rectly with the ex­perts who work there and de­mand that the art they have sold be re­turned home.

It is now up to the depart­ment of ar­chae­ol­ogy, the min­istry of cul­ture and the na­tional ar­chives to ini­ti­ate proper le­gal pro­ce­dures to repa­tri­ate th­ese cul­tural her­itages. But the au­thor­i­ties must also en­sure that they de­velop the ex­per­tise and have re­sources re­quired to ad­e­quately main­tain them and, more im­por­tantly, keep them from get­ting stolen again.

One way per­haps could be to en­ter into a re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tion­ship with western mu­se­ums – the mu­se­ums could pe­ri­od­i­cally dis­play the art­work and in re­turn pro­vide main­te­nance. It is also nec­es­sary to sup­ple­ment repa­tri­a­tion ef­forts with the doc­u­men­ta­tion and cat­a­logu­ing of the ex­ist­ing art­work. Ini­tia­tives such as ar­chae­ol­o­gist Sukra Sa­gar Shrestha's on­line Nepal Art Reg­is­ter, which con­tains eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble photographs of Nepali stat­ues, must be en­cour­aged and sup­ported.

No one knows who the thieves are. His­to­ri­ans as­sume that the ac­tual theft may have been car­ried out by bands of Nepalese or In­di­ans. But who is be­hind them? Who or­ga­nizes th­ese op­er­a­tions and pock­ets the profit? No one knows for sure. Ru­mors are rife that high-placed in­di­vid­u­als from the Nepalese side are in­volved. In fact, at the peak of the statue smug­gling trade dur­ing the Pan­chayat years, some of the roy­als them­selves were al­legedly en­gaged in smug­gling the an­cient her­itage of the coun­try. It was dan­ger­ous to dig too deep to un­cover what was hap­pen­ing. Many who tried to in­ves­ti­gate were threat­ened re­peat­edly for pok­ing their noses into the smug­gling. As in­cred­u­lous as it may seem, it ac­tu­ally makes sense or how else would such a huge quan­tity of stolen art pass un­de­tected through air­port and bor­der checks?

Of course, this does not mean that the west is only the pur­chaser and pro­curer of this art. A clas­sic ex­am­ple is the case of the Pol­ish diplo­mat who, hav­ing be­ing ex­pelled from In­done­sia for such ac­tiv­i­ties, came to Nepal and im­me­di­ately founded a Pol­ishNepalese Friend­ship So­ci­ety, the main ac­tiv­i­ties of which in the fol­low­ing years con­sisted of trans­port­ing art stolen from Kathmandu safely to War­saw.

In the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, where thieves are en­joy­ing pow­er­ful pa­tron­age, the con­cern for the safe­guard­ing and preser­va­tion of the artis­tic her­itage and art trea­sures of Nepal does not di­min­ish a bit, look­ing into the fu­ture.

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