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