Ancient stolen treasure to be returned to Nepal by Art Gallery of NSW

Ancient stolen treasure to be returned to Nepal by Art Gallery of NSW

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A centuries old carved wooden sculpture honouring an important Hindu deity is making its way home to Nepal, as the Art Gallery of NSW joins the global push to repatriate stolen national treasures.

The cultural artifact was one of six top-tier roof struts reported stolen in 1975 from a 13th century shrine in the Kathmandu Valley, and came into the possession of the AGNSW via a bequest more than 20 years ago.

The13th century Ratneshwar Temple in the Kathmandu Valley.Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales

It was after the strut, carved in the form of a sinuous tree deity known as a shalabhanjika or yakshi, was spotted on exhibition at the gallery in 2019 that the process of deaccession and eventual repatriation began amid grassroots campaigning for the return of Nepal’s plundered heritage.

The carving will be officially handed over by the gallery on Tuesday at a ceremony to be attended by assistant foreign minister Tim Watts at the Patan Museum in Kathmandu.

Watts said he was humbled to be able to witness the return of the precious item to the Nepali people, adding that this “significant” gesture was in line with Australia’s commitment to the highest standards of ethical practice and international obligations.

The wooden temple strut (tunala) depicting a tree deity (yakshi) from the 1200s. Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales

The object is the second artifact to be repatriated by the Art Gallery of NSW from its Asian art collection, and the first of four that will be returned this year.

Director of the AGNSW Michael Brand said the sculpture would initially be held at the Patan Museum, near the Ratneshwar Temple from which it had been removed.

Only two of the original decorated roof supports remain. The others are believed to have been plundered for the international blackmarket. Replicas were installed when the temple was restored in 1992.

“It is possible the tunala will be reattached to Ratneshwar Temple in the future,” said Brand. “But that is a decision for professionals in Nepal.”

The object’s repatriation comes as museums and galleries globally review their collections for items of religious, artistic, and cultural significance, under pressure from citizen watchdogs in Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Nepal, all of which are seeking the return of plundered national treasures.

In 2014, the AGNSW returned to India a sculpture of the Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara, which it had purchased from notorious New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

Kapoor was convicted last year for his role in a multinational antiquities ring, accused of smuggling some 2600 objects, valued at more than $107 million, from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Thailand using false provenance papers.

Three further sculptures purchased by the AGNSW from Kapoor will be returned to India later this year.

The National Gallery of Australia has also returned to India an 11th century bronze statue called Dancing Shiva, which it purchased from Kapoor for $5.6 million in 2008, as well as deaccessioned works that trace back to the 1897 looting of the Royal Palace of Benin, now in Nigeria.

The dancing Shiva statue once held by the National Gallery of Australia.Credit: Jay Cronan

The return of the yakshi was a matter both of professional responsibility and personal resonance for Brand.

“I first visited Kathmandu as a 15-year-old and was introduced by my host family to the leaders of a major temple conservation project there,” he said. “That visit, and another two years later, had a profound impact on me, and my future studies in Asian art and career in art museums.”

Brand said the narrow beam of wood is carved in the form of a sinuous tree deity known as a shalabhanjika or yakshi. Faint traces of pigment remain, suggesting it had once been vibrantly painted.

The strut came to the gallery in 2000 through a bequest of 79 sculptures and textiles from Australian-British art collector Alex Biancardi.

An avid collector of south Asian art, Biancardi was known to be in contact with British art dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020 before he could face trial on smuggling offences in the US. There is no evidence that Biancardi knowingly purchased stolen goods at the time.

Brand said establishing provenance was different for every object and in some cases vital information is never found.

The carved goddess, however, was identified by a scholar of Nepalese cultural-history and architectural studies, the late Mary Shepherd Slusser.

A researcher and board member of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, Slusser had photographed the same tunala in place on the temple in 1969.

Slusser is thought to have been originally supportive of the object remaining at the gallery because of the threat of looting.

However, bodies such as the Nepal Heritage Recovery Program have since called for urgent repatriation, and the gallery had responded accordingly.

“In early 2001, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was informed of the sculpture’s provenance and that it had been stolen in 1975,” Brand said. “From then, it was a matter of communication and timing.”

Sydney Morning Herald subscribers can enjoy 2-for-1 tickets* to the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales during June 2023. Click here for more details.

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