US museum returns stolen Nepal god

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

The stone figure of Laxmi-Narayan had been worshipped at a shrine in Patan’s Patko Tole for 800 years. But on one night of 1984, it disappeared.

The holy androgynous composite of the two deities was so important to the community that local people replaced it with a poor replica.

In 1990, the the 12th-century statue, which is also known as Vasudeva-Kamala was spotted at the Sotheby’s auction house based in New York. After that it disappeared again until American artist Joy Lynn Davis located it via a Google image search to the Dallas Museum of Art.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is finally taking possession of the 70kg figure on Tuesday, and delivering it to the Nepal Embassy in Washington on 5 March, American Art Crime Professor, Erin L Thompson, who has been tracking this and other stolen antiquities, told Nepali Times.

“I am happy that the museum saw its retention of the work was unjust,” Thompson said. “I continue to be dismayed that museums and collectors demand the type of proof about the date and circumstances of theft that existed in this case, since this information has so often gone unrecorded elsewhere. No work of Nepali sacred art left the country legally, that is the essential fact.”

The Laxmi-Narayan figure as memorialised by Joy Lynn Davis in 2015. Painting by: JOY LYNN DAVIS

Heritage activists and local communities in Nepal say the return of Laxmi-Narayan statue could be the start of a process of repatriating thousands of other religious objects from Kathmandu that are now in Western private collections or museums.

“We are glad our god has been located in Dallas and is being returned, but we must also ask ourselves whether we are up to taking good care of it,” Bhairaja Shrestha, a social activist of Patko Tole told Nepali Times last year, adding that the community’s festivals and rituals were affected after the god was stolen.

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.

Artist Joy Lynn Davis painted Kathmandu’s shrines and depicted the stolen deities in them in gold, and held an exhibition of her work in 2015 that included a painting of the Patko Tole shrine.

She says, “The day the Laxmi Narayan arrives in Nepal, I will be the happiest person—so many people and organisations have worked on this. The only way to protect them is to increase awareness about their significance. We have a lot of work to do, Laxmi-Narayan is just the beginning.”

Bhairaja Shreshta at the Patko Tole shrine last year, with the replica of the Laxmi-Naryan.

The Lalitpur Metropolitan Office has offered to pay for the shipment of the Laxmi Narayan, and to restore it to its original shrine in Patku Tole after a ritual chhama puja.

The Nepal Embassy in Washington has said it will start the process of sending the deity back to Nepal, and denied media reports that it did not have the money for air freight.

The 1993 exhibition East Meets West: Sculpture from the David T. Owsley Collection at the Dallas Museum of Art where the Laxmi-Narayan can be seen at centre, right. Photo: Dallas Museum of Art

Kumar Raj Kharel, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, told Nepali Times: “I was misquoted. We have never said that we cannot pay for the logistics, just that we cannot send it to Nepal immediately. We had to look at the cost, insurance, and fulfil the lengthy bureaucratic process of consulting with the ministries of finance, culture, foreign affairs, and the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu before dispatching it.”

Thousands of stolen statues of Nepal to date remain in the display of international museums in many parts of the world and more that are found in the US, some may have provenance and some may not.

Kharel added, “We hope the repatriation of the Laxmi-Narayan to Nepal will set a precedent for locating and returning other stolen images.”

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

He said museums and collectors with stolen antiquities from Nepal need to be responsible and abide by the UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Art Crime Professor Erin Thompson agrees. She says, “Every art lover in America has a responsibility to look at the art we see and ask if it is right for us to have it here.”