Nepal’s Stolen Image Found at Dallas Museum of Art
by Deepak Shimkhada, Ph.D.
This article (please check the link to read full text) by Erin L. Thompson, Professor of Art Crime in New York, published in Hyperallergic on January 24, 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/author/erin-l-thompson/
Images of this size and importance can manage to get dislodged from a shrine and leave the country only with the help of the authorities. Because this particular image left Nepal in the early 1980s, the era of corruption, its disappearance speaks volumes. Many sacred images managed to get stolen and smuggled out of the country during the period of twenty years from 1970 to 1990.
Rumors had it that some members of the royal family were involved in the smuggling ring because smuggling art was a very lucrative business.
Because of strict antiquity laws and a paucity of objects, the sources of art had dried out in India. Western dealers and collectors suddenly turned their heads to Nepal, a new frontier where they could find religious Buddhist and Hindu art dirt cheap and in abundant quantity.
Nepal had been a corridor for Tibetan art since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and took refuge in India. So, a lot of pieces of Tibetan art—ritual objects, thangka paintings and handwritten manuscripts—were abundantly available in Kathmandu brought by Tibetan refugees when they fled their country.
Private collectors in the United States acquired Nepali and Tibetan art through unscrupulous dealers during this time period. The market was driven by two factors: 1) art was easily available, and 2) the price was cheap.
In her article, Professor Thompson cites Kanak Mani Dixit’s conclusion: “Every piece of ancient religious statuary from Kathmandu Valley that sits today in the West is stolen property.” Of course, such a blanket statement won’t be 100 percent true because some items were almost certainly acquired through proper channels: objects sold by owners or given as a gift to a guest or a relative. We all have some family heirlooms and it is unlikely they are stolen property. But the importation of antiquities is another matter that requires close scrutiny.
Because the use of photography wasn’t readily available in the 1800s and even during the early 1900s, there was no way of taking an inventory of art objects in the Kathmandu Valley. Inventory was kept in the head.
Growing up in Kathmandu in the 1950s and 1960s I remember encountering many religious images in every nook and cranny along a street. These were easily accessed for worship whether they were in a small shrine, a large temple or just on the sidewalk. They were not just objects of art, they were objects of veneration. Before my own young eyes, I began to see them disappear one by one. I was too naïve to know then the cause of their disappearance. But when I came to the U.S. to study art history, I became aware of what had happened – because I saw many familiar images in the museums and in the homes of some private collectors. This was literally déjà vu.
Thanks to Lain Singh Bangdel, the late artist, who documented images that were stolen from shrines, temples and the street corners. He collected photographs of the stolen images and published them in a book, titled Stolen Images of Nepal (1989). Today it remains a great source of material for those who work to track down the stolen images. Strangely enough, the so-called Lakshmi-Narayan Image is a conflated image – much like the Ardhanarisvara image of Shiva and Parvati. When Lakshmi and Narayan are displaced in one image they are called Vasudeva-Kamalaja or Vaikuntha-Kamalaja. Today it’s proudly displayed at the Dallas Museum of Art.