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A sculpture of a Hindu deity looted from a Kathmandu Valley temple in the 1980s and exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has been repatriated to Nepal. The sacred Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana was purchased at an auction in 1990 and loaned to the DMA, where it had been on display for nearly 30 years when Erin L. Thompson, an art crime professor at John Jay College, tweeted about its questionable provenance, expounding on it in a January 2020 article for Hyperallergic.
The DMA removed the stele from view on December 16, 2019, a month after Thompson’s tweet, and said it would investigate the claims. In a joint effort by the museum and the FBI, the statue was transported from Dallas to Washington, DC, and returned to Nepali custody on March 5 this year.
Nepal banned the export of historic statues of deities through its Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1956. However, authorities estimate that tens of thousands of Nepalese antiquities have been plundered and sold in a multibillion-dollar global black market since the country opened its borders to tourists. Many of those artifacts are thought to be housed in private collections and public institutions across the United States.
Against this backdrop, the story of the Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana has a comparatively happier ending.
“The Dallas Museum of Art is committed to responsible stewardship of the objects in our care and rigorous provenance standards. As soon as we became aware of additional information on the stele, we began working with the lender and with the Embassy of Nepal to determine an ethical and appropriate course of action,” said DMA director Agustín Arteaga in a statement.
However, some are questioning why the repatriation didn’t happen sooner — especially given the sculpture’s well-documented status as stolen.
The distinctive figure of Hindu deities Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi in composite form is reproduced and described in Krishna Deva’s Images of Nepal (1984) and Lain Singh Bangdel’s Stolen Images of Nepal (1989), two of the most cited sources for researching stolen deity statues, Thompson tells Hyperallergic. One of those titles, the Bangdel book, is actually housed in the DMA library, she adds.
“The museum claimed they acted when ‘new information became available,’ and numerous media reports have reprinted these claims,” Thompson said. “But the information was far from new. Information about the theft of this stele was published, in English, in Bangdel’s 1989 book — which sits on the shelves of the museum’s own library. The information was available decades before the museum acted on it.”
“The museum acted not when information about the theft was available, but when information about their failure to act on this information became public,” she continued.
A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the book in question was acquired in 2020 in connection with research it was conducting into the stele. “The DMA conducts research on objects in our care on an ongoing basis, and we are constantly confirming new information about works of art, both at the DMA and from within the broader community of museums and scholars,” the representative continued. “When we identify concerns about an object, we act on that information responsibly and continue to do so.”
The Lakshmi-Narayana sculpture was sold in a Sotheby’s auction of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art in March 1990 and landed in the hands of Dallas art collector David T. Owsley, a longtime patron of the DMA and namesake of the museum’s Owsley Galleries of South Asian Art, where the stele was exhibited. The publication of Bangdel’s book predates Sotheby’s sale by a year. (A spokesperson for the auction house has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
In her article for Hyperallergic, Thompson described investigations into the Kathmandu icon by artist Joy Lynn Davis and writer and activist Kanak Mani Dixit. Davis, who was working on a series of photorealistic paintings about stolen Nepalese deities, had come across a blurry image of the sculpture at the DMA on a blog and immediately recognized the statue. She had learned about it during an artist’s residency from Dixit, who knew the work had been sold but not where it had ended up.
When Thompson raised concerns about its provenance to the DMA in 2019, the museum asked for an official police report. But Nepal has never permitted the export of its art, Thompson notes, comparing the museum’s request to “saying ‘we need to check security footage from the boat’ when one of the passengers washes up on shore before you officially declare they’ve drowned.” (A spokesperson for the DMA told the Art Newspaper that asking whether a work has been reported stolen is “by no means an uncommon question as part of due diligence.”)
“It’s not enough for museums to sit and wait for claims — they need to be just as proactive about scouring their own collections for stolen sacred artifacts as they have been to make sure they don’t hold Nazi-looted art,” Thompson told Hyperallergic.
To this day, a shrine in the Narayan Temple in Patko Tol from which the work was stolen has held a small replica of the sculpture so its community could continue to worship Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities. The original statue’s reinstatement represents for many worshippers the long-awaited return of a symbol of a living god.