US support to restore stolen Nepal gods

US support to restore stolen Nepal gods

Nepali TimesMarch 5, 2021 Alisha Sijapati

The figure of Laxmi-Narayan, stolen from a shrine in Patan’s Patko Tole in 1984 and recently traced to the Dallas Museum of Art, US, is to be returned to Nepal. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has taken possession of the 70kg figure and will deliver it to the Nepal Embassy in Washington on 5 March. 

The holy androgynous composite of the two deities had been worshipped for 800 years before it disappeared, and the local people had replaced it with a replica. The image of the 15th-century deity was first published in Indian historian Krishna Deva’s book, Images of Nepal in 1984, followed by Nepal’s art historian Lain Singh Bangdel’s book, Stolen Images of Nepal.  

On the sidelines of the handover of the Lakshmi-Narayan statue Nepali Times spoke to the US Ambassador to Nepal, Randy Berry about the US government’s role in supporting Nepal to protect its cultural heritage and art.

Nepali Times: What is the role of US Embassy in repatriating stolen arts?  

In this case, our Regional Security Office – staffed with special agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security – played a critical liaison role between the Nepal Police and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was conducting the investigation in Texas. Being able to bridge the communication gap between Nepal and American law enforcement agencies and ensuring harmony in the efforts of all involved in the recovery of the Lakshmi-Narayan statue are key strengths of our Regional Security Officers.  

Overall, helping to protect cultural heritage is an important and unique aspect of our foreign policy. For more than 50 years, the US Department of State has had a Bureau dedicated to education and cultural affairs. Its mission is to foster mutual understanding between Americans and the people of other countries through people-to people exchanges, such as the Fulbright and IVLP programs, and through sports, arts, and cultural programs.  

One of the programs which I am most proud of is our Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP). This is a US government program that provides direct grants for preserving cultural heritage by enlisting community members and local and federal governments in partner countries. Since 2003, there have been 25 AFCP projects just in Nepal, including Kathmandu’s Gaddi Baithak, investing more than $3.8 million. That’s incredible. Even more so, as part of our AFCP projects, our grantees also ensure artisan training to transfer knowledge and job skills to younger generations. So it is not just a program that ends when the work on a particular project is complete.    

The 12th century Laxmi-Narayan statue stolen from Patan in 1984 has been handed over to Nepal Embassy in the US. Deputy Assistant Director of FBI Timothy N Dunham and Nepal Ambassador to the US Yubaraj Khatiwada were present during the handover. Photos: AMITABH JOSHI

How important of a precedent is the homecoming of Lakshmi-Narayan statue?   

It has huge importance. First, this is an idol that dates back to between the 12th and 15th  centuries, and it speaks to Nepal’s rich cultural heritage. The homecoming also reflects the unique friendship between Nepal and the United States. It is a collective effort of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Embassy of Nepal in the United States, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’m thrilled the Laxmi-Narayana will finally be back where it belongs – in the hands of Nepalis.    

There are thousands of Nepali artifacts in the United States, will the Embassy help in identifying them and cooperate with the Nepal government in the future? 

Whenever possible, we intend to collaborate with the concerned stakeholders to identify the artifacts and facilitate their return. I hope that this is the beginning of these pieces coming back to Nepal. They are not only in the United States, but in many places around the world.  I hope other governments and museums follow suit. 

The original 12th-century Laxmi-Narayan stolen in 1984. Photo: LAIN SINGH BANGDEL In Sotheby’s catalogue in 1990. Photo: ERIN L. THOMPSON The deity in the Dallas Art Museum in 2014. Photo: ERIN L. THOMPSON

  What are America’s policies on restoration of antiquities of Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Cambodia? 

I can’t speak to a broad policy for those pieces from those countries. However, the Department of State has incredible programs that demonstrate the United States’ commitment to art and cultural preservation as I discussed above.   

To my knowledge, we are one of the few foreign affairs ministries that has an entire bureau that is in part dedicated to the art and culture of our diplomatic partners. That is because we consider cultural heritage vitally important – not only as a matter of foreign policy, but because we recognise the commonality in wanting to preserve cultural and historical pieces, art, and property for future generations. 


How can the US Embassy help Nepal in restoring it cultural heritage and idols?

The US Embassy in Nepal has been promoting the conservation of cultural heritage for a long time. A recent example is the restoration of Gaddi Baithak of Basantapur, which was damaged by the 2015 earthquake. We feel honoured that we were able to help restore it to its original grandeur. We also support preservation of Nepal’s temples and monasteries through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, as I’ve just mentioned.  

Could you tell us something about your personal interest in preserving art?  

I’ve had an enduring interest in art as a means of communication, art history, and art preservation throughout my life, and my Masters’ level studies focused on Art History. I also had the opportunity as a young man to live and work in North Africa, and study the ancient architecture, statuary, and hieroglyphs from Cairo (in Egypt) to Meroe (in Sudan) and all points in-between. Art has been a vital form of human communication since prehistoric times. It is a reflection of who we were, what we believed, and how we lived. When we preserve historic art, we embrace and conserve history, and honor those ancient storytellers who used form and texture, rather than words, to express cultural value