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September 16, 1999
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Nepal's stolen statues come home
By Ramyata Limbu

KATHMANDU - A decade after the publication of ''Stolen Images of Nepal'', a comprehensive photographic documentation of the country's stolen sculptures, a batch of icons featured in the book has been returned.

In what the country's archaeologists and art lovers describe as a historic event, a Los Angeles-based art collector recently returned four sculptures dating back to the ninth century. ''It is a historic event. For centuries Nepal's art work has been plundered, but this is the first time that someone has felt morally obliged to return any. That is a historic first,'' says avid art watcher Jurgen Schick.

The Archaeology Department, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, spent about $3,000 dollars to bring back the sculptures, which have an estimated value of over $100,000.

The art works - a ninth century Buddha image, a tenth century Garudasana Vishnu image, the mutilated head of a twelfth century Saraswati image and a fourteenth century Surya image - are now in the National Museum in Kathmandu.

Photographs of numerous Hindu and Buddhist icons, taken by Schick during his travels in the Kathmandu Valley in the early 1980s are featured in ''Stolen Images of Nepal'', written by leading art historian and former vice-chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy Lain S Bangdel and published in 1989 by the Royal Nepal Academy.

Schick's own book, ''The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal'', published in German in the same year, carries pictures and accounts of stone and bronze sculptures that disappeared from Nepal in the 1970s and 80s. An English edition of the book was published in 1997.

The work of both men, one a connoisseur whose work spans 30 years, the other a self-professed art lover who spent seven years painstakingly documenting the valley's icons, is detailed proof of the plunder of Nepal's 2000 year-old cultural history.

The books, according to archaeologists, may be the only record of Nepal's stolen artworks. ''In the absence of the Archaeology Department's own records, these books may be the only existing evidence that will enable us to claim artworks that have disappeared from the country,'' says archaeologist C P Tripathee.

Schick, who first arrived in Nepal in 1980 as a tourist, was struck by the wealth of culture concentrated in Kathmandu, a valley comprising the ancient cities of Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. His aim to put together a comprehensive book on the Kathmandu Valley's heritage changed when he began to notice empty niches, holes in walls and mutilated statues - the work of international art-theft organizations.

Many of these sacred idols, worshipped and venerated by generations of Nepalis, lie behind glass cases in the sterile atmosphere of art galleries, museums, and private collections in the West.

''In the early 80's, I'd taken a group to look at the statue of Lakshmi Narayana in Bhaktapur. It wasn't there. It had been stolen in the night. There was a crowd of people. Women were weeping,'' recalled Schick. Today, a badly-done copy stands in its place.

Like Bangdel's book, the aim of Schick's book, apart from providing evidence of the theft, is to change the purchasing policies of western collections and lay the ground for a future return. Schick cites examples.

A Sotheby's Catalogue (New York, 1990) on Himalayan Art published a fifteenth century sculpture of Vasudeva Kamalaja. The sculpture was stolen in 1984. A tenth century stone sculpture of Uma Mahesvara, stolen in the mid 1960s, is on display in the Denver Museum in the US.

Another Uma Mahesvara statue, stolen in 1984 from the hamlet of Bhaktapur, is on display in the Guimet Museum in Paris, one of the world's leading museums of South Asian Art. ''The statue used to be there,'' says Bhaktapur resident Rabindra Kharbuja, pointing to an empty, moss-ridden niche, just a couple of yards from the fake statue of Laxmi Narayana. ''The recent return of stolen artworks has given us hope. If our gods come back, we will go to the airport to receive them with pomp and ceremony. We've worshipped them for centuries.''

Eight other sculptures documented in Bangdel's book are missing from the immediate vicinity. More than asthetic works of art, these sacred icons have a deeply religious significance for generations of Nepalis who worship them with flowers, vermilion, milk and butter every day.

Many of the remaining statues have been put behind ugly iron bars cemented to the ground to deter would-be art thieves. The export of artifacts older than 100 years is banned in Nepal.

''The nineties have experienced less art theft. I guess there is not much left to steal,'' said Schick . ''I think attitudes are changing too. The market is shrinking.''

A UN Convention, ratified by Nepal in 1976 but yet to be signed by wealthier developed countries, bans the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Its implementation could save the heritage of many countries like Nepal.

(Inter Press Service)

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