Bonhams cancels auction of Nepali antiquities

France’s Bonhams has withdrawn five 600-year-old religious objects stolen from Nepal from an ongoing auction after widespread international pressure.

The five gilded bronze statues were among 12 wrenched out of a torana at the Mulchok of Patan’s Taleju temple in the 1970s and 1980s. 

They were going under the gavel at the Art Bouddhiste et Hindou de l’Himalaya in Bonhams, Paris from 1-10 June through Himalayan Art Online till June at an asking price from 3,000 to 5,000 euros.

Nepali Times had reported on the auction sale on Thursday, and this had been followed by Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nepal office of the Paris-based UNESCO to put pressure on Bonhams and the French government to return the objects.

The anonymous administrator of the group, Lost Arts of Nepal, who first traced the gods told Nepali Times via text, “I am really happy that our gods are returning home, finally all my research is paying off, this has been great teamwork.”

In a dramatic turnaround, Bonhams wrote to all officials, reporters, and institutions that had posted about the bronzes that they were being pulled out of the auction. Heritage activists said that if the auction had gone ahead, they would have been bought by anonymous collections and could have vanished forever.

On hearing the news, American arts crime professor Erin Thompson said, “Halting this sale sets an important precedent: Paris is no longer the place to go if you want to sell stolen heritage. The case shows that Nepali activists and journalists are paying close attention. The black market in stolen Nepali heritage won't be able to operate in the dark.”

The whereabouts of the remaining seven statues from the Mulchok frieze is not known, but the cancellation of the auction has raised hopes that they may soon be traced since they cannot be publicly sold. 

The five gilded copper-bronze images of NrityanathMahalaxmiChamundaShiva Gana (Bhairab), and Panchmukhi Hanuman (Hanu Bhairab) were among 12 on a 16th century frieze at the south door of the Mulchok of the Taleju Bhavani Temple in Patan. 

In Kathmandu, heritage activists including Rabindra Puri got in touch with UNESCO Kathmandu to put pressure on Bonhams since it was time-sensitive. He told Nepali Times, “This reminds me of the cultural repatriation of the one which I was involved in with Christie’s in 2013, the withdrawal was a success due to the teamwork.”

This is the latest in a series of repatriations of stolen Nepali objects from collectors and museums abroad. In April, an 800-year old Laxmi-Narayan figure was returned to Nepal by the Dallas Museum of Art, and will soon be restored to its original shrine in Patan’s Patko Tole. After it disappeared it had been spotted at the Sotheby’s auction in 1990 and vanished again.

Four other statues have also been repatriated in the past two months from Art Institute of Chicago, including a 13th century carved Apsara and a 14th century Buddha, a 15th century Ganesh, and a 13th-century Chaturmukhi Shivalinga.

Replicas of the 12 idols stolen from Mulchok, including the five that were being auctioned by Bonhams, had been made and installed on the frieze in 2013 during a restoration of the temple by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT).

Another heritage activist, Roshan Mishra of the Taragaon Museum, said he was surprised Bonhams acted so fast to cancel the auction. He said: “This is a great precedent for the future. It sends the message that Nepal’s antiquities cannot be sold anywhere, anymore.”

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