An 800-year-old carved goddess was stolen from a Kathmandu Valley temple and smuggled to Australia. Now Nepal wants it back

By Craig AllenPosted Sat 12 Jun 2021 at 4:05amSaturday 12 Jun 2021 at 4:05am, updated Sat 12 Jun 2021 at 8:02amSaturday 12 Jun 2021 at 8:02am

This image posted on social media shows the strut that is now at the Art Gallery of NSW, and the temple it is from.(Facebook: Lost Arts of Nepal)

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An international tug-of-war is continuing over a religious carving stolen from one of Nepal’s oldest temples, which is now a prized exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney.

Key points:

  • A stolen 13th century carved wooden strut from Nepal has become a matter of contention between the Art Gallery of NSW and Nepali scholars  
  • The Kathmandu Valley has previously suffered looting of their artefacts, and locals want their items returned 
  • Social media activists are tracking down stolen items and calling for their return to Nepal 

Nepali scholars say the 13th century goddess was looted from the city of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley in the 1980s and smuggled out of the country.

The 1.3-metre carved wooden strut once helped support the roof of the Ratneswar temple in Patan’s Sulima Square, and was donated to the AGNSW in 2000.

The gallery has known the carving was stolen since 2001 and told the ABC it had been in protracted negotiations to return it to Nepal.

But social media activists have highlighted the theft recently in an attempt to pressure the institution into returning the carving.

Sulima temple strut in the Art Gallery of NSW.(Supplied: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

An AGNSW spokesperson said repatriation talks had lately ground to a halt as Nepal grappled with a growing COVID-19 emergency.

“This is a very important negotiation and one the art gallery will continue to work on actively,” the spokesperson said.

“The art gallery is committed to returning the strut, however we respect the request of our colleagues while other issues take priority.”

But Nepali writer and cultural commentator Kanak Mani Dixit questioned why the carving was still in Australia after 20 years of talks.

“It definitely has to come back to Nepal and the community can consult as to what should be done,” Mr Dixit said.

“Place it in the original place in the temple, or if something educational can be done with a strut that has travelled overseas and returned, perhaps in a specific gallery at the Patan Museum.”

Kanak Mani Dixit has questioned why the carving is still in Australia after 20 years of talks.(Supplied: Saniaa Shah)

How did it get to Australia?

Architecture historian Mary Shepherd Slusser first drew international attention to the Sulima temple in 1982, when she documented the intricately carved woodwork that held up the pagoda’s two-tiered roof.

She photographed many of the ornate temple supports — known as “tunalas” — which featured the willowy figures of nature demi-gods, or Yakshis.

Carbon dating has confirmed the temple was built about 1200 AD, making it perhaps the oldest pagoda of its type in Nepal.

Within months of Dr Slusser’s visit, looters had stripped all but two of the 16 struts, leaving the temple in a state of disrepair.

Her photos later served as blueprints for an extensive restoration of the temple, in which the stolen architectural features were faithfully recreated by local artisans.

How the medieval-era strut that is now housed in Australia was smuggled out of the country remains a mystery, but it is known that thousands of stone, metal and wooden artefacts have been illegally removed from the Kathmandu Valley since the 1980s.

It was finally donated to the AGNSW in 2000 by the estate of Alex Biancardi, a well-known collector of Asian art.

There is no suggestion that Mr Biancardi knew the piece was looted, as stolen artefacts were often accompanied by fraudulent paperwork.

Kanak Mani Dixit at the Sulima temple, where the carving was stolen from.(Supplied: Saniaa Shah)

Theft is ‘violence done to a living culture’

Mr Dixit, who is an honorary director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, refuses to believe the carving was legally acquired.

“It is obviously stolen because a temple strut is public property, with no one having the right or authority to sell or dispose of in any way,” Mr Dixit said from Kathmandu.

“It is still true that Kathmandu Valley’s is a continuous history, and when a so-called ‘cultural object’ is stolen, violence is done to a living culture.

“This makes Nepal different from other societies from where ‘artefacts’ are stolen, from Cambodia to Afghanistan to Egypt to Mexico and Peru.”

Two temples are photographed at night
The Kathmandu Valley is world renowned for its elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples. (ABC News: Craig Allen )

How the ‘hippie trail’ helped spark an art looting frenzy

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of young Western tourists set out on overland adventures linking Europe and the Far East.

It became known as the “hippie trail”, famed for its exotic cultures, free love, and cheap drugs.

When they reached the Kathmandu Valley, some of them were so convinced they had found Nirvana they never left.

Those who did sometimes took home souvenirs looted from the valley’s numerous ornately decorated temples.

As fascination with the Himalayan kingdom grew, it attracted the attention of foreign art collectors who had heard about the treasure trove of intricately carved stone and wooden deities adorning countless open-air pagodas and shrines.

In impoverished Nepal, that interest sparked a black market in plundered artefacts, sometimes with the involvement of complicit corrupt officials.

Over the following decades, countless statues and carvings were prised from their surroundings — even as the Kathmandu Valley’s historic monuments were afforded World Heritage status and UNESCO protections.

Mr Dixit said it was a “chaotic” clash of cultures.

“The chaotic opening of our society, the value of the dollar, involvement of local ‘bigwigs’ — all encouraged theft of our gods and godesses and religious paraphernalia and architectural elements,” he said.

Arrest blew the lid off stolen art racket

The 2011 arrest of New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor exposed a murky global underworld of antiquities trafficking and left Australian cultural institutions with uncomfortable questions over the provenance of some of their exhibits.

The highest-profile Australian case led to an embarrassing admission: that the National Gallery of Australia’s US$5m “Dancing Shiva” statue was in fact stolen, and sold to the NGA with forged paperwork.

The statue was subsequently returned to India in 2014 by then prime minister Tony Abbott.

In the wake of the Dancing Shiva revelations, the Australian government released a “best practice guide to collecting cultural material”, which put the onus on cultural institutions to thoroughly research the ownership chain of their exhibits — particularly if they had come from “religious buildings” like temples.

“Institutions should undertake due diligence to ensure they only acquire or borrow cultural material that has legal title, established provenance, is authentic and not identified as having been looted or illegally obtained or exported,” the guide says.

The government also clearly spelt out the risks to those institutions which did not do their homework: “acquiring or borrowing objects with uncertain provenance may risk supporting trade in looted objects … It may also lead to a claim on that object.”

What is a ‘repository of last resort’?

Some authorities have argued stolen works are safer in Australia because they could be at high risk of being taken from Nepal again.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

In exceptional circumstances, Australian museums and galleries have been allowed to hold suspect foreign material as an “emergency loan” where it is not safe in its own country, to “protect it from destruction or deterioration”.

It is called being a “repository of last resort” — and an argument mounted against the repatriation of the Sulima temple strut from the Art Gallery of NSW.

When the Sulima temple was restored in the 1990s, the stolen temple struts had been recreated in their original style by master woodcarvers.

But their reproductions were considered so accurate and desirable that thieves targeted the new struts.

The late historian Mary Slusser wrote “attempts to steal the modern reproductions from the temple made it clear that the [AGNSW] strut had best be left on loan to Australia”.

But that finding is one Mr Dixit disagrees with.

“Mary Slusser was a fine scholar… however she did not have the authority to speak about the strut, and in any case, the community is more alert to the need for restitution,” Mr Dixit said.

Social media exposes thefts, leaving cultural institutions with nowhere to hide

When the Sulima temple carving was featured on the Facebook page Lost Arts of Nepal, it showed how internet detectives had begun mobilising to reunite stolen items with traditional Nepali owners.

The site has an anonymous moderator, who told the ABC the page was having success in helping track down Nepali cultural artefacts in private and institutional collections.

“Loss of our cultural, religious and artistic heritage is a very emotional subject,” the Lost Arts of Nepal moderator said.

“Theft of antiquities is a global problem. In Nepal, it started from the 1960s, which reached its peak in the 1980s-90s. Now, the thefts are still there but very less.”

Recently the Lost Arts of Nepal page was instrumental in stopping a French auction of looted antiquities.

It was considered a massive win, and the site’s moderator joined calls for the Sulima temple strut to be returned from the Art Gallery of NSW.

“There is no question, it should be returned to its place of origin. These artefacts are a significant part of our life,” the moderator said.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be restituted to its original temple. But the government policy is to keep it in the custody of national museums for safekeeping and public viewing until restitution [to the temple] could be possible.”

US artist Joy Lynn Davis has even developed an interactive database of stolen artefacts across the Kathmandu Valley with photos to help museum visitors track them down.

Mr Dixit said it was good that the internet was leaving the world’s cultural institutions with fewer dark corners in which to hide.

“Social media is a boon in the attempt to locate where objects in Nepal [should be] located,” he said.

“The larger portion of the loot is in storage of museums and collections, so they are harder to identify.”

But Mr Dixit said that it should not be difficult to convince institutions like the AGNSW to return identified stolen objects to Nepal, as long as local communities could guarantee their safety.

“What I have found is that once we are able to prove the fact of an object having been stolen — from a living culture — we do not have to fight very hard for the return,” he said.

“Besides, there is no authority — even in Nepal — who really has the authority to say that the strut may remain in Australia.”Posted 12 Jun 202112 Jun 2021, updated 12 Jun 2021