A deity stolen from a temple in Nepal ended up in the Dallas Museum of Art. How many more looted gods are in American museums?
Most people wouldn’t have been able to identify the object that appeared in a fuzzy photograph as art at all. But the artist Joy Lynn Davis immediately recognized the blurry image that popped up when she ran a Google image search for sculpture from Nepal. It was a statue of two deities joined together: Narayana (an avatar of Vishnu) and his consort Lakshmi. With one pectoral muscle and one breast, this Lakshmi-Narayana statue is unmistakable. Davis knew the statue had been stolen from a temple in Kathmandu in 1984. Now, a blogger’s shaky snapshots from an exhibition opening revealed where it had ended up: the Dallas Museum of Art.
Davis had been staring at photographs of the Lakshmi-Narayana statue for months as she added it to her photorealistic painting series of deities stolen from Nepal. Nepal banned the export of historic statues of deities in 1956. But in the same decade, Nepal finally opened its borders to foreigners. At first there was only a trickle of visitors. But by the early 1980s, with the oil crisis over and Eastern religion firmly in fashion in the West, tens of thousands of tourists a year visited the Kathmandu Valley — and saw its spectacular art.
This art soon began to disappear from Nepal — first small pieces, like ritual paraphernalia, then free-standing, bronze statues of deities. Finally, even difficult-to-transport stone sculptures became worth the while of thieves and smugglers. Jürgen Schick, a German researcher who has studied art theft in the Kathmandu Valley, estimates that over half of its historical artwork, including most of the major pieces, have been stolen since the borders were opened. These artworks ended up in the hands of wealthy collectors and museums. But, as the Nepali writer and activist Kanak Mani Dixit summarizes it, “every piece of ancient religious statuary from Kathmandu Valley that sits today in the West is stolen property.”
Davis met Dixit when she was an artist in residence at the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Center. She asked him which stolen sculptures meant the most to him, and he mentioned the Lakshmi-Narayana statue, stolen from the Narayan Temple in Patko Tol, near Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Dixit had discovered that the statue had been auctioned at Sotheby’s New York on March 22, 1990 (Sale 5987: Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art, lot 278), but he didn’t know where it had gone from there. We now know that same year, Osley lend it to the Dallas Art Museum. It was displayed there as a long-term loan for nearly 30 years. It was removed from view in December 2019, approximately a month after I pointed out the theft on Twitter and the museum replied that they would look into it.
Davis’s painting shows the niche in the shrine where the statue once stood. Today, the shrine holds a small replica, so the community can continue to worship Lakshmi-Narayana. For many in Nepal, the stolen statues are not merely beautiful; they are living deities. They must be fed, anointed, cared for, and worshipped. In turn, they care for their worshippers, protecting them and granting their prayers. The thieves didn’t just steal the community’s artwork. They stole its god.
While the community worshipped a replica, the stolen statue was purchased at Sotheby’s by David T. Owsley, a prominent collector of antiquities and long-time patron of the Dallas Art Museum. The sculpture first appeared in public in late 1993, during a special exhibition put on to display Owsley’s collections (East Meets West: Sculpture from the David T. Owsley Collection) and, presumably, court him to become a donor. It worked. In 2003, Owsley pledged to leave his personal collection of South Asian art to the museum, and the majority of his intended gifts went on display in newly opened dedicated galleries.
But if you were looking for the Lakshmi-Narayana statue, you wouldn’t have been able to find it unless you wandered into the museum yourself. Images of the statue were not published until the Museum put out a catalog (The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas at the Dallas Museum of Art) in 2013. The entry for the Lakshmi-Narayana statue describes its iconography — with the deities combined in a single body — as so rare as to be unknown outside the Kathmandu Valley.
In other words: the museum knew the sculpture came from Nepal. It’s not known what documentation accompanied the statue when it was auctioned. It might have had none, or might been provided with fake paperwork purporting to show legal export. But, given the long-standing ban on exports and the theft crisis of Nepali deity statues, it’s difficult to imagine what the curators would have told themselves about how the statue could have left Nepal legally. Especially since this unique sculpture was pictured and described in Krishna Deva’s Images of Nepal and Lain Singh Bangdel’s Stolen Images of Nepal, which are the two most cited sources for researching stolen deity statues. Did the museum simply not bother to check when preparing its lavish catalog? By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two sculptures of deities to Nepal after the curators doing research on these donations noticed one of them was listed in Bangdel’s Stolen Images.
The stolen Lakshmi-Narayana statue sat on a stark white base against a white wall under the words “David T. Owsley Galleries of South Asian Art.” It is far from the only potentially looted object donated to an American museum by Owsley. Owsley, born in 1929, is the grandson of Frank C. Ball, one of the founders of a glass manufacturing company that would become known for their home canning jars. You’ve probably sipped a hipster cocktail from a Ball Glass mason jar. Owsley grew up in Dallas. Currently, as a Dallas Museum of Art curator puts it in a fulsome essay about him, Owsley lives amidst “the treasures of his large collection, which crowded his fascinating apartment in Manhattan.”
The museum credits Owsley’s donations with “chang[ing] the character” of their collections. Before Owsley, the Museum had only “a handful of good Indian sculptures,” but Owsley and the Owsley Family Foundation donated so much South Asian art that the museum ran out of space, and had to ask for help building new galleries. And the museum praises Owsley for continuing to buy more South Asian art for the museum “ranging from a Tibetan stupa to a great Nepalese Bhairava mask to a majestic Thai seated Buddha subduing Mara.” All of these are ritual objects.
In 2007, Owsley promised to donate the Lakshmi-Narayana statue, along with many other historically significant works of art from South Asia in his collection, to the museum on his death. The museum’s catalog carefully notes this important date — important because it meant that Owsley’s gifts snuck under the wire of a deadline the curators would have known was coming.
In 2007, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) was preparing new guidelines for its member museums, of which the Dallas Museum of Art is one. After these guidelines came into effect, on June 4, 2008, the museum could no longer accept donations of antiquities without proof that they left their probable country of origin before November 17, 1970, the date set by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
But there’s a loophole. The 2008 guidelines allowed museums to accept donated antiquities without proof of legal export as long as these gifts were promised prior to the guidelines coming into force. The current AAMD guidelines, revised in 2013, attempt to narrow this loophole by requiring member museums to post all new antiquities acquisitions without full provenance to an online Registry of New Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art, so source countries can make claims. Even gifts promised before 2008 have to be posted.
The Dallas Museum of Art currently has 14 objects listed on the AAMD Registry. Three of these were donated by Owsley: an Indus Valley humped bull from the third millennium BCE, donated by Owsley in 2009, and two antiquities from Cambodia, a seated figure, whose whereabouts are known only since 1994, and a lingam, purchased from Sotheby’s by Owsley. Both Cambodia and Indus Valley sites (in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) have been heavily looted.
Under the AAMD guidelines, member museums are in charge of determining when they think they have full documentation of provenance. If the museum’s researchers are satisfied, the museum can accept the gift and is under no obligation to reach out to potential claimants, even though provenance paperwork can be faked. Thus, the Dallas Museum of Art has accepted a has accepted a number of other South Asian artworks from Owsley, even though the museum’s own labels explain that these antiquities must have been removed from temples. There’s a snarling bronze guardian lion that “originally stood watch over the entrance to a Buddhist temple in Nepal.” There’s a carving of Vishnu, which, “an architectural sculpture that ornamented a temple or shrine.” There’s a relief of Uma-Maheshvara, manifestations of Shiva and Parvati, which was “probably intended for a temple niche.”
The AAMD’s requirement to post unprovenanced objects comes into force only when an object is acquired by a museum. Loans do not trigger the same requirements for provenance scrutiny as acquisitions. In response to this article, a museum spokesperson said that, since 2014, the Dallas Art Museum has required all acquisitions and loans undergo full provenance reviews, but that the statue “had not been subject to this policy” because it was on loan before 2014. The spokesperson also pointed out that, given this review policy, the statue would not have been accepted as an acquisition “even if this matter had never been brought to the Museum’s attention” by Hyperallergic.
But can the museum so easily excuse itself by the technicality that the object was a promised donation, not yet completed? Waiting to do provenance research until a pre-2014 promised becomes an actual donation upon the lender’s death means that a museum gets a few more years for people’s memories to fade, or for the documents proving theft to disappear.
Owsley’s name appears 274 times in the catalog The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas at the Dallas Museum of Art, which is filled with descriptions of his promised gifts. Some of these objects are on display in the museum, but few are in the museum’s online collections inventory, making them difficult for potential claimants to discover. Claimants there might indeed be, given that the contents include 13 antiquities from Cambodia, 38 from India, eight from Tibet, five from Thailand, and one each from Indonesia and Myanmar. The museum has stated on Twitter that it is “currently looking into” the status of the Lakshmi-Narayana statue, but it needs to look hard at all of its potentially stolen art (especially considering that it has already had to return looted antiquities in its collection to Turkey and to Italy).
The Dallas Museum of Art isn’t the only institution that needs to take a hard look at its unprovenanced donations from Owsley. He’s also a major donor to the campus museum of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana — so major that in 2001 it changed its name to the David Owsley Museum of Art “in honor of [Owsley’s] generous gifts.”
The Owsley Museum should be praised for its transparency in maintaining an online database of its collections records. These records show that Owsley has donated 200 antiquities from countries whose laws prohibit export of antiquities and which have suffered heavy looting: Afghanistan, Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Timur), China, Egypt, Fiji, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Syria, Thailand, Tibet, and Turkey, along with various pre-Columbian and Roman objects. Of these donated antiquities, 120 have no provenance information included in their publicly available record. For the other 80 records, the provenance information consists generally of the date of an auction or name of a dealer. Sometimes this is as vague as “New York art market.” Nearly half of these provenance entries, 39 total, contain no dates in the provenance information. Only four of the donations whose provenance entries do contain dates for previous transactions claim a pre-1970 provenance history.
Many of these objects raise red flags in other ways. Some unprovenanced Malian objects seem to have come from the same grave, which points to recent looting (grave ensembles tend to separate over a long time on the art market). Some objects, like a Nok terracotta, come from sites so totally ravaged by looting that very few examples have ever come to the market legally. And there are also donations of antiquities from areas known to have been looted during recent conflicts, like a cuneiform cylinder from Iraq.
The Owsley Museum is a member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and thus is subject to the AAM’s 2008 guidelines for museums possessing archaeological material and ancient art. Like the AAMD, the AAM recommends against accepting antiquities without proof that they left their probable country of modern discovery by November 17, 1970. Around 70 of Owsley’s antiquities donations to the Owsley Museum arrived after 2008, but it does not seem that they required any proof of legal export before accepting them. The Owsley Museum may well be acquisitioning looted, even very recently looted, antiquities — and doing so at the expense of American taxpayers, since donations to the Owsley Museum entitle the donor to claim a tax deduction.
In a documentary made by Ball State to honor Owsley, the museum’s associate director explains that he sometimes thinks of Owsley as a bodhisattva, a category of beings in Buddhism who have achieved enlightenment but who have decided to remain on earth in order to help humans, “because he has remained here and made it sort of his own mission to help us become enlightened in a certain way.” The associate director describes the bodhisattva that spurs this comparison, donated by Owsley around 2014, as having originally been “carved out of live rock in the side of a mountain in southwestern China.” He makes no mention of the route the statue would have taken once it was cut from this ancient monastery to end up in Muncie, Indiana.
And what motivation would the Owsley Museum have to question its titular donor? At the time of its name change, the university issued a news story stating that Owsley intended to “bequeath five million dollars to the museum as an endowment together with his bequest of about 90 percent of the works in his extensive art collection.” Owsley has donated around 3,000 artworks to the museum. This might seem generous, but it merely continues the family tradition. His grandfather and the other founders of Ball Glass donated the entire university to the state of Indiana. That’s why it’s called Ball State.
Owsley and his family made and continue to remake Ball State and the Owsley Museum. What university or museum would care to question the source of so many donations, both monetary and in kind, even if a few of these donations might seem to violate ethical guidelines? And the Owsley Museum is just one example of the sort of dance that many other university museums are doing with their own major donors.
The questions, ultimately, are about who rightfully owns the past and who should have the privilege of seeing and experiencing antiquities. In the documentary, Owsley said that he thinks of his donations to museums as “my obligation and my pleasure to create something and to continue what my grandparents had started.” The Dallas Museum of Art’s catalog claims that “[g]enerations of Dallasites will reap the rewards of [Owsley’s] generosity.” But this honoring of his grandparents, and the bestowing of benefits to current and future residents of Dallas and Ball State, came at the expense of the Nepali worshippers who can no longer tend to the same statues their grandparents worshipped. Their grandchildren deserve the chance to anoint these statues again. Perhaps, someday, they will.
Editor’s note 1/26/2020: This article was updated after the DMA informed Hyperallergic that the statue was removed from display on December 16, 2019. A tweet by the author on November 19, 2019 alerted the DMA of the deity’s provenance, prompting the museum to inquire further. Additionally, a previous version referred to the founders of Ball Glass donating the university to the state of “Illinois.” That should have been “Indiana” and has been corrected.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.