Stolen Nepalese statues test Western museum ethics


Over 700 years ago, an artist took a chisel and began carving a massive wooden beam into the supple, curvy figure of a yakshi, an elemental goddess of fertility, to adorn the roof of a temple at Itum Baha, a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu. . The wooden beam formed a spacer to support the heavy overhang of the roof as the yakshi, clad in piles of elaborate bracelets and crowns and stomping on a demonic figure beneath their feet, raised a delicate arm to provide spiritual protection.

The protection of the yakshi worked for centuries, until Western art collectors desired its beauty. As soon as Nepal opened its borders to foreigners in the 1950s, the artwork decorating the country’s shrines began to disappear, fueling the market for Eastern “spirituality” and aesthetics. In the beginning, they were small objects, like small bronze sculptures made for domestic shrines. But the demand quickly grew so high that thieves took heavy stones sacred works of art of public temples. The yakshi and its companions disappeared from Itum Baha in the mid-1980s, with almost all other carved struts surviving in the Kathmandu Valley.

Western museums are full of acquired in a doubtful way works of art seized in imperialist raids, bought for insignificant sums from people in distress, or excavated under agreements with occupying governments. But while the legality of such cases is constantly debated, the situation is much simpler in Nepal. It has never been legal for sacred works of art like the yakshi to leave Nepal, and the country explicitly banned their export in 1954. The willingness or unwillingness of a museum to return stolen goods to Nepal is a litmus test of how it will respond to growing demands for the repatriation of plundered heritage from other cultures.

Over 700 years ago, an artist took a chisel and began carving a massive wooden beam into the supple, curvy figure of a yakshi, an elemental goddess of fertility, to adorn the roof of a temple at Itum Baha, a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu. . The wooden beam formed a spacer to support the heavy overhang of the roof as the yakshi, clad in piles of elaborate bracelets and crowns and stomping on a demonic figure beneath their feet, raised a delicate arm to provide spiritual protection.

The protection of the yakshi worked for centuries, until Western art collectors desired its beauty. As soon as Nepal opened its borders to foreigners in the 1950s, the artwork decorating the country’s shrines began to disappear, fueling the market for Eastern “spirituality” and aesthetics. In the beginning, they were small objects, like small bronze sculptures made for domestic shrines. But the demand quickly grew so high that thieves took heavy stones sacred works of art of public temples. The yakshi and its companions disappeared from Itum Baha in the mid-1980s, with almost all other carved struts surviving in the Kathmandu Valley.

Western museums are full of acquired in a doubtful way works of art seized in imperialist raids, bought for insignificant sums from people in distress, or excavated under agreements with occupying governments. But while the legality of such cases is constantly debated, the situation is much simpler in Nepal. It has never been legal for sacred works of art like the yakshi to leave Nepal, and the country explicitly banned their export in 1954. The willingness or unwillingness of a museum to return stolen goods to Nepal is a litmus test of how it will respond to growing demands for the repatriation of plundered heritage from other cultures.

Last summer, a Nepalese activist spotted the Itum Baha yakshi in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum had accepted it as a donation in 1991, despite the notoriety of the ongoing flights and the publication of a photograph of this strut in a 1989 book on the fate of Nepalese art. The display of art stolen from Western museums is sometimes defended by arguments that artifacts can be better preserved and seen by more people there, but neither is true for yakshi. She’s hidden away in the museum’s storerooms, only appearing in a low-resolution photograph on her website’s collections database.

And, after centuries in Nepal, it was its theft and exportation that damaged it. In New York, the feet of the yakshi walk on the air, not on the demonic image once an integral part of the sculpture. This lower part of the strut remains in Itum Baha, awaiting a meeting.


Nepal’s Itum Baha yakshi, titled Temple Strut with a Tree Goddess (Shalabhanjika), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Evelyn Kossak, the Kronos collections, 1991 / Met Museum

The yakshi and the demon may soon be together again. The Metropolitan Museum is already back another sculpture in Nepal in September after a similar investigation by a new wave of Nepalese activists who started spotting art stolen from museums and private collections and demanding their return. These efforts led to the repatriation of seven artifacts in 2021, and other cases, including that of the yakshi, are pending.

Not all museums have been as willing to cooperate as the Metropolitan. Another 13th century yakshi strut, stolen from a temple in Patan, Nepal, in 1975, remains in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney after 20 years negotiations for his return. In the meantime, the Nepalese authorities first requested repatriation of two stone sculptures of deities from the Guimet museum in 2000. Despite the photographs showing the sculptures in place in their reliquaries before their flight, they are still in Paris.

It can be difficult to feel sympathy for countries seeking the return of antiques looted from an archaeological site. How much can they miss out on something they didn’t even know they had? Theft of art from a private collection produces a more identifiable victim, but art possession by a connoisseur can seem like a fairly minor difference. But the art stolen in Nepal is not just art. Many of these sacred works received daily worship. They were fed, washed, clothed and anointed like living beings. Just as the yakshis supported the roofs of temples, these works of art supported the structure of the living culture of Nepal. Putting them in a shop window is not only stealing them, but killing them.

Preparations to bring a stolen deity back to life are underway in Patan where, in December, a repatriated sculpture will be reinstalled in the sanctuary from which it was stolen in 1984. The 15th century sculpture shows, in polished black stone, a body divided in two: on one side, the Hindu god Vishnu, and on the other, his wife Lakshmi . The unusual subject matter and style should have made it clear to anyone who cared to know that the work was made in the Kathmandu Valley during one of its artistic golden periods – even if they weren’t aware of it. from his illustration in another 1989 book, Lain Singh Bangdel’s Stolen images from Nepal, on the plunder of Nepalese culture. Yet the sculpture was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York in 1990. By the time a Nepalese journalist, Kanak Mani Dixit, spotted the list, it was too late. The sale was over and the sculpture was gone again.

Decades later, Joy Lynn Davis, an American artist who had started a project to research and paint the extinct Nepalese sacred art, acknowledged the sculpture exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art. The museum helped organize its repatriation in March by working with its owner, a private collector who loaned it to be exhibited along with other artifacts from its vast collection of South Asian sacred art. The sculpture will move from the museum’s antiseptic white galleries to its sanctuary, newly fitted with CCTV and other security measures to keep it safe.

Don’t feel too bad for this collector. He, or anyone else who wishes to fill his living room with stolen heirlooms, could purchase decorations like a wooden sign that once decorated the shrine of Kumari, the living goddess of the country, in Kathmandu, or two stone sculptures kneeling devotees from the monasteries of Kathmandu – just three of the works of art currently offered by a single UK-based gallery. The antiques market around the world remains robust. Collectors seemingly ignore the fact that their purchases help fund those who sell looted antiques, including organized crime and violent extremist organizations.

The work of academics who photographed sculptures in Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s, rightly fearing that they would be stolen, has proven to be crucial for contemporary activists who use the databases of museum collections, auction listings and even scanning art collector snapshot backgrounds for stolen works. But what about art that has been stolen without ever being photographed? Many of the smaller, but still valuable, works of art from the valley were taken before the documentation effort began. Some were even deliberately hidden in the temple storerooms to protect them from thieves, but to no avail.

In 591 CE, a Buddhist nun named Parisuddhamati donated a beautiful bronze Buddha to a monastery in Patan, Nepal. this buddha is now in the Cleveland Art Museum. The ancient monastery honored by Parisuddhamati is named in a detailed inscription on the basis of the sculpture, but its exact location in the city is unknown. The Buddha may have belonged to one of the city’s other religious communities or been worshiped in a private home at the time of his theft, sometime before his arrival in Cleveland in 1968. Details of this theft will likely never be found. . . Does that mean he should stay in the United States? The 20 collectors who have so far contacted on Nepalese heritage recovery campaign (an organization of activists seeking repatriation within the advisory committee of which I sit), asking for advice on returning Nepalese art in their possession, seem to agree that lack of evidence does not justify art retention Fly.

The sculpture of a united Vishnu and a Lakshmi will be the first sacred work of art to return to its shrine after a stay abroad (the others have entered museums). But the Nepalese have a habit of resettling their deities. Over the centuries, major earthquakes like the one in 2015 have rocked temples across the country. But the metal or hard stone of the cult statues and the hardwood of the carved beams have survived the collapse of the surrounding brick walls. These works, as delicate as they may seem, have survived centuries of disasters. The global antiques market may have been the most destructive so far, but it could still be overcome.