Nepal wants stolen antiquities returned from France

The original torona over a door in Mulchok of Patan Darbar Square in early 70s. Photo: ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA. And after the 12 gilded bronze figures were stolen from the frieze in 1984. Photo: ELFRIEDE MOELLER.

Even though smuggled Nepali religious objects are starting to be returned to the country from museums and collectors in the West, gilded figures stolen from a temple in Patan 40 years ago are going up for auction in Paris this week.

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

The objects which were individually wrenched out of the torana in the 1970s and 1980s are now going under the gavel at the Art Bouddhiste et Hindou de l'Himalaya in Bonhams, Paris from 1-10 June through Himalayan Art Online. The asking price is from 3,000 to 5,000 euros.

The original gilded bronzes from the torana were first recorded in the early 1970s by Indian art historian BN Banerjee in his book, Architecture of Nepal for the Archaeological Survey of India. Art historian Mary Slusser had also documented pictures of the original statues before they were stolen one by one.  

The thefts were documented in German scholar Jurgen Schick’s book, Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal, in which he writes, ‘One of the most odious cases of art theft in Nepal was the plundering of the torona of the Taleju Bhavani temple in the royal palace of Patan.’ 

The auction was first spotted  by Lost Arts of Nepal who tracked the ongoing auction at Bonhams, Paris  on its Facebook page on Thursday. 

Altogether 12 precious bronzes of the goddess Durga and her retinue dating to the 16th century were stolen from this site alone, and the torana was stripped bare. Later these bronzes were put up for sale by an auction house in Stuttgart in Germany.  

“Of 12 statues that were torn out of the torana, thankfully five have now surfaced at the auction in Paris, so we now know where they are. I hope in the near future we will find the other seven as well, and they will be returned to Nepal,” says Rohit Ranjitkar of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) who is involved in the restoration of temples and monuments in Patan.

Replicating Nepal's stolen gods, Alisha Sijapati

On 15 April, Nepal welcomed back an 800-year-old Laxmi-Narayan figure from the US, which was stolen nearly 40 years ago from Patan’s Patko Tole. The statue was first located in 1990 at a Sotheby’s auction and was later spotted at the Dallas Museum of Art. 

Since then, four other statues have been returned to Nepal from collectors and museums in the United States: a 13th century carved temple eave depicting an Apsara, a 14th-century gold seated Buddha in Bhumisparsa Mudra, a 15th century seated Ganesh, and a 13th-century Chaturmukhi Shivalinga from Art Institute of Chicago. 

Emiline Smith, lecturer of Criminology at the University of Glasgow says, "Many countries around the world have been deprived of their rich cultural heritage for centuries through the exploitative and colonial looting and trafficking of cultural objects. Those countries have requested their cultural heritage back for decades, and now it finally seems like the 'repatriation debate' is gaining momentum."

"While museums have attempted to work with claimants to return heritage as part of their decolonisation efforts, much more work needs to be done in this area - and not only by museums, but also by private collectors, auction houses and other stakeholders. Much like museums, auction houses including Bonhams should hold the objects they trade to the highest level of scrutiny," Smith says.

In 2010, a bronze Garuda water spout, the centrepiece of the Sundari Chok in Patan Darbar Square, was also stolen. However, it was retrieved by police a year later in Kathmandu before it could be smuggled out of the country.

The exquisitely carved original figure is now on display at the National Museum in Kathmandu, while the Sundari Chok has a replica bronze created by artisans at the KVPT. In 2013, the Department of Archaeology had also approached the KVPT team to make replicas of the 12 figures from the Mulchok of Taleju Temple torana. 

“The torana had been stripped bare, and we had to refer to the original photographs to make replicas when we restored the Mulchok,” Ranjitkar told Nepali Times. 

There is now moral and diplomatic pressure being brought to bear on Bonhams to stop the auction. Roshan Mishra, director of Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu has reached out to the auction house in Paris with evidence of the origin of the statues, and that the stolen items should be returned to Nepal.

“This is groundbreaking news for us that five of the 12 stolen antiquities have been located, we have to bring them back like the other statues from American museums,” says Mishra.

US museum returns stolen Nepal god, Alisha Sijapati

The Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu, the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nepal Embassy in France have already started the process to halt the auction immediately. 

Sanjay Adhikari, a heritage activist and lawyer says, “Nepal’s religious objects were being actively worshipped, they are not decorative art to be auctioned or kept in museums. They are not just metal or stone objects but our gods and goddesses we have been worshiping for generations and need to revere for generations to come.” 

Adhikari has already filed an application at the Department of Archaeology and UNESCO Kathmandu office for the return of the Mulchok figures. He says since France has always been a pioneer advocate for heritage conservation and where the UNESCO headquarters is located, its government should realise that its global reputation is at stake. 

He says, “This is a moral as well as a legal obligation of the government of France and  I hope there will be positive intervention from it and from UNESCO to bring our gods home.” 

Suresh Lakhe of Patan Museum says, “I knew that they were stolen in the 1970s, and just like the Laxmi-Narayan statue that was returned from the US will be restored to its original shrine in Patkotole these figures also belong in Mulchok. These are our gods."

Nepal's gods return from exile, Alisha Sijapati

Even while effort is on to suspend the Bonhams auction, there are two other stolen religious objects from Patan that are in a warehouse of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet in France (a 12th-century Vishnu with Laxmi and Garuda, which was stolen from Chyasal in Patan in late 1970s and another 12th-century statue of Uma-Mahesvar stolen on the night of 23 May, 1984 from Nasmanatol in Bhaktapur) which also need to be returned. 

Art historian Lain Singh Bangdel had documented these two stolen figures in his book Stolen Images of Nepal. Bangdel's late daughter Dina was working with the curator at the Guimet to get the statues back to Nepal before she died in 2017.

American art crime professor Erin Thompson says, “Museums have started to wake up to the reality that stolen Nepali art needs to go back to Nepal. But dealers, auction houses, and many collectors are still ignoring the continuing crime of depriving Nepal of its heritage. The only way to stop the market in stolen cultural heritage is to stop the demand. No one should be buying cultural artifacts from Nepal because ever example of ancient or sacred artifacts from Nepal whether in a museum or on the market, was stolen.”