When a centuries-old bronze statue now on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art was stolen from a Hindu temple in Nepal 36 years ago, it became one of hundreds of ancient cultural artifacts that have been illegally removed from the country over the last six decades.
Since the 1950s, when the country opened itself up to tourism, thousands of sacred statues and sculptures have been stolen from their homes, where they're considered community property and living deities, and sold on the black market. Today, many of those artifacts are in museums and private collections in the United States.
When sacred statues and sculptures are stolen from their communities in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia, centuries-long religious, cultural and historical ties are broken — ties that art historians say can't always be repaired, even if the objects are eventually returned to their rightful homes.
"It's not just some pretty object," said Melissa Kerin, a professor of art history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. "It's very much their living religious tradition, which is a huge part of cultural identity."
The statue, which depicts Hindu deities Narayana and Lakshmi joined together in a single form, was stolen in 1984 from a temple in Patan, a city in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley. It was included in Nepali artist and art historian Lain Singh Bangdel's 1989 book Stolen Images of Nepal.
Then, in 1990, the statue turned up in New York, where it came up for auction at Sotheby's. It was bought by art collector David T. Owsley, who gave it to the DMA on long-term loan the same year. Owsley has promised to leave the statue to the museum as a part of a larger bequest upon his death.
The statue was on display at the museum until last month, when the museum removed it from display after being notified that it had been stolen. On Tuesday, Jill Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the Dallas Museum of Art, said in an emailed statement that the museum is investigating the statue's provenance.
"As soon as the DMA was made aware of the recent information with respect to the stele, the Museum began an internal review and research of the object, which was on loan to the DMA from a private collection," she said. "The DMA has removed the stele from display while we work with the lender to gather additional information and determine an appropriate and responsible course of action."
Kerin, who teaches courses in South Asian art history, said such thefts have been widespread for decades not only in Nepal, but also in India and Pakistan. Thieves, attracted by the high prices ancient works of art can fetch on the global art market, steal sacred statues from Hindu and Buddhist temples and shrines and sell them to middle men, who get the object out of the country and, eventually, into the hands of Western art collectors.
Although collectors and art lovers appreciate those works for their beauty and the deep, centuries-old culture they represent, they mean more to the communities they're stolen from, Kerin said. To believers, statues, once consecrated, aren't simply depictions of deities — they carry the divine essence of those gods. So when a thief steals a sacred statue, he steals more than just an image of a god.
Such statues are an important part of daily religious life in their communities, Kerin said. People talk to them, pray to them and give them offerings. When they disappear, what's lost isn't just a cultural touchstone, she said. It's an object of worship and a living piece of their spiritual tradition. And even in the few cases where those items have been found and repatriated, their original function is ruined forever, she said.
That's because once a statue is stolen and trafficked illicitly, people become aware of how much money it's worth — often millions of dollars. So statues that are returned to their home countries generally can't be displayed in the temples and shrines that originally housed them, because they'd be stolen again. Many statues that have been returned to Nepal have ended up in museums in Kathmandu, where they're safe and accessible but cut off from their original spiritual functions, she said.
Removing sacred statues from their homes also rips them from their cultural and historical contexts, said Janice Leoshko, an art history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Art historians look at variations in artists' techniques and subjects over time as a way to understand cultural changes. They also look at changes in how the pieces were used, she said.
Once a sculpture is pulled out of its original location, all that context is lost. An art historian looking at a Nepalese sculpture in a museum might be able to say roughly when and where it was made, but nothing beyond that. Objects that, like the DMA statue, were well-documented before they were stolen could be returned to their proper places, she said. But for other objects, all that cultural context and information is lost forever.
"It's like making orphans out of them, if you will," she said.
Joy Lynn Davis, a California-born artist and art history researcher, spotted a photo of the statue in a blog post about an exhibition opening at the DMA while she was researching stolen Nepalese art. Davis, who now lives in and works in Sweden, had spent hours poring over a photo of the statue while working on a photorealistic painting of the sculpture as a part of a series of works on stolen art from Nepal. So even though the photo on the blog post was blurry, she recognized the statue immediately.
"For me, it was unmistakable," she said. "Because it's a very unique sculpture."
As part of her research, Davis moved to Nepal and lived there from 2012 to 2015. She began by trying to find the temples that had been homes of artifacts that were stolen between the 1950s and the 1980s. But each time she found one temple, someone there would pull her aside and tell her about another statue that had been stolen more recently, sometimes only weeks before.
The theft of those statues is devastating to communities, not only because of their artistic and historical value, but also their religious significance, Davis said. They're particularly important on major religious holidays. Women often go to the same statue to worship each day. People bring the statues food and incense. Davis said she's seen children offer statues a sip of Coca-Cola.
"I've had people tell me that these sculptures were like members of their family," Davis said.
In 1954, shortly after the country opened itself up to international tourism, Nepal enacted a law banning the export of sacred statues and sculptures. Even before that law went into effect, those statues were treated as the property of the communities where they existed, never a single person or family, Davis said. So any Nepalese statue of a deity that's on display in a museum or sitting in a private collection in the United States was almost certainly removed from Nepal illegally, she said.
"Nearly every single one of them was stolen," Davis said. "Nobody had the right to sell them, nobody had the right to buy them. They're community property and living gods."
In November, Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, pointed out the theft in a Twitter thread. Museum staff replied that the DMA "takes these matters very seriously and we are currently looking into this."
This sculpture, currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art, was stolen from a temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1984 (thread with details). pic.twitter.com/89cnptwksS
— Erin L. Thompson (@artcrimeprof) November 19, 2019
Last week, Thompson published a blog post in the arts magazine HyperAllergic calling attention to the piece. In it, she argued that the museum should take a harder look at the provenance of the South Asian pieces in its collection, including those donated or lent by Owsley.
Thompson told the Observer that the museum should have known about the possibility that the statue was stolen and trafficked when it took possession of the piece. Because looting is so widespread and Nepal bans the export of sacred statues, there's essentially no above-board way for a museum outside of Nepal to take possession of one of those sculptures, she said.
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The answer to what should be done with pieces of art that have been looted and trafficked is a complicated one, Thompson said, and there's no single answer that applies in every case. When a work of art that was looted by the Nazis during World War II makes its way into a museum or university, those institutions may rightfully and reasonably claim that they had no way of knowing the work's history. But in cases where sacred statues have been looted from Nepal and exported illegally, museums have no excuse for not knowing, or at least suspecting, that they were stolen, she said. In those cases, the works should be returned to Nepal, she said.
"It should be impossible to buy this type of object in good faith," she said. "They're sacred objects never willingly sold by the community who worshiped them."
Davis, the Sweden-based artist, said she's not entirely willing to point blame at the museum, since, because the statue was on loan, the museum likely didn't have a legal obligation to research its provenance. But even if the museum and Owsley both acquired the work in good faith, they still need to consider where the work has its original value and its strongest cultural and religious meaning.
"I argue that that's in Nepal, where it's more than just a work of art," Davis said. "It's a living god."