How Nepali antiquities got to Chicago museum

The 400-year-old necklace once worn by the Taleju Bhawani goddess in Kathmandu that is now in a museum in the United States. Photo: ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Two months after the Art Institute of Chicago returned a stolen 800-year-old stone sculpture, many more of Nepal’s religious antiquities have been located at the museum, raising questions also about the identity of the international criminal networks and their accomplices in Kathmandu responsible for the thefts.

An America-based Nepali posted photographs on Friday of a whole section of the Art Institute of Chicago that is dedicated to religious objects from Nepal and other South Asian countries. 

Sweta Gyanu Baniya, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago and was appalled by what she saw. Among them was an intricate gilt-copper necklace stolen from Kathmandu’s Taleju Temple 45 years ago, and her Twitter post about it was widely shared. 

“I had heard about the Nepal section at the Art Institute, and sure enough there was the necklace and other deities from Nepal on display,” Baniya says. “I felt like bowing down to pray.”

Besides the necklace, there were also other Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses on display, alongside antiquities from India and Pakistan. But it was the necklace that emotionally moved Baniya the most, since the Taleju Temple is open to the public only once a year back in Kathmandu.

“And here it was on show all year round. I knelt before the display and was overcome with tears. I knew the necklace was not where it was supposed to be, it belonged back in the Taleju Temple in Kathmandu,” she said. “I was emotionally moved, and could not move away from it.”

As more and more Nepali antiquities are traced to Western museums and private collectors, pressure is building for their return, as well as to find the identity of international smuggling networks with their Nepali accomplices responsible for the thefts three to four decades ago.

In April, Nepal welcomed back a stolen 12th-century stone sculpture of Laxmi-Narayan from the Dallas Art Museum, where it had been exhibited after being stolen in 1984 and last sighted at a Sotheby’s auction 30 years ago (below).

The necklace itself is studded with semi-precious stones and inlaid with smaller depictions of the eight astamatrika goddesses. And inscription at the front proves that it once belonged to King Pratap Malla who ruled Kathmandu from 1641-74 -- one hundred years before the Valley was conquered by Prithvi Narayan Shah.

In 1970, the necklace was among the treasures that were ordered by the Panchayat government at the time to be moved to the nearby Hanuman Dhoka Museum which was deemed to be safer since it was guarded by the Royal Nepal Army. It disappeared in 1976.

“The government wanted to move the treasures for safe-keeping, but it got stolen anyway. The high priests at the time had warned officials that this would anger the powerful Taleju god. Sure enough, within a year, King Mahendra died,” says Uddhab Karmacharya, the eighth generation high priest of the Taleju Temple from the family

“How was it possible that such a sacred item could be stolen from such a highly secure place?” asks Karmacharya, whose father was the head priest when the treasures were ordered to be transferred.

Art historians say that the Taleju necklace and other religious objects in Nepal could not have been smuggled out without collusion between international art dealers, criminal networks and their accomplices on the ground in Kathmandu.

“The inscription at the front of the necklace leaves no doubt not only about when and where it was made, but also where it was intended to stay,” explains American art crime professor, Erin Thompson. 

The Art Institute of Chicago exhibit includes details of the necklace, and says that it was among items gifted by the US-based Alsdorf Foundation. Interestingly, this the same foundation that used to also own the stone sculpture of the 13th century Chaturmukhi Shivalinga (below) that the museum handed over to the Nepal Embassy in Washington in April for restitution to Nepal.

The provenance of the necklace also mentions that it was sold by Bruce Miller Antiquities of Sausalito in California on 22 June, 1976 to the Alsdorf Foundation — the very year that the necklace was believed to have been stolen in Kathmandu. 

The information is contained in an invoice in a curatorial file given to the Art Institute Chicago in 2010 that notes: ‘Receipt of Object #26939 … on loan to the museum since July 8, 1976’. 

“The Art speaks for itself … it is a masterpiece, one of a kind, it was a royal commission for the clan deity, Taleju Bhawani,” said the administrator of the site Lost Arts of Nepal which had also traced and posted information of the object in the Chicago Museum in March. 

The post contains the transliteration of the inscription. 

“कन्थि।। श्री श्री श्री भगवती देवी जननी जयति:। स्वस्ति महाराजाधिराज श्री श्री राज राजेन्द्र कवीन्द्र जय प्रताप मल्ल देव स कथि जुरो शुभ।।"

“Victory to the Mother-Goddess [Bhagavati devi Janani]. Hail! [This] is the necklace of the king of kings, lord of kings, lord of the poets, the victorious Pratapamalladeva (may it be) auspicious.”

The Alsdorfs, through their foundation or individually gave as many as 14 Asian antiquities in their collection to the Art Institute. Noted Chicago collector and philanthropist couple James and Marilyn Alsdorf were especially interested in sacred art, and there are even photographs of some of these stolen objects adorning their swimming pool (below). 

Art crime professor Erin Thompson writes on Twitter: ‘Totally culturally disrespectful and all. Some of their collections have problematic provenances, to say the least. ”

The Aldorfs also had many other stolen religious objects from India and tibet in their collection. Vijay Kumar, the co-founder of the India Pride Project and author of The Idol Thief told Nepali Times: “The Alsdorfs have been a part of many high profile repatriations in the past, it is high time that the US government also start investigating the provenances of the Alsdorf collection.”

Some of the objects from the Alsdorfs collection have been put up in auctions at Christie’s in the past. The Taleju necklace appears to have been a gift from Marylinn B Alsdorf to the Art Institute of Chicago, according to Lost Arts of Nepal which has all been trying to trace the provenance of the two stone sculptures from the Alsdorf collection that the Art Institute Chicago sent back to Nepal in April.

Says Sangeeta Thapa of Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu: “Why haven’t we looked out for antiquities that went south before being re-exported in the late 70s, 80s. The Nepal government needs to be more proactive on this, it is time to look at our own backyard and the region.” 

While the Taleju necklace has been located and the Nepal government says it will start working on its repatriation, Lost Arts of Nepal has also started investigating the provenance of two other Nepali deities at the Art Institute of Chicago that were also gifted by Marylinn B Alsdorf (above). 

One is a Muchalinda Buddha statue from Guita Tole in Patan, where the first photo of the figure in the shrine was taken by the Department of Archaeology. The second is of a dancing Bhairava which was documented in a book by art historian Jurgen Schick.

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