A temple under lock and key in Kathmandu (2020) All photos by Emiline Smith

“When you enter the Southeastern Asian galleries,” a Dallas Museum of Art educator wrote in a museum blog post in 2012, “an instant calm envelops you…. It’s almost like stumbling upon a yoga class, where each figure is in a tranquil pose and reaching for spiritual awareness.” Last week, the tranquility of these galleries was disturbed when armed FBI agents crated up one of the sculptures. The agents then drove it across half the country to Nepal’s embassy in Washington, DC to return it to its rightful owner. Turns out, like yoga and vague ideas of Eastern “spiritual awareness,” Americans had extracted this sculpture from Southeast Asia and turned it to their own purposes. But this time, the source country demanded their cultural heritage back.

The sculpture, a representation of Narayana (an avatar of Vishnu) and his consort Lakshmi, was carved in Nepal in probably the 10th or 11th century. For hundreds of years, it was worshipped in a small community shrine in the city of Patan, nor far from Kathmandu. Thousands of similar shrines and temples dot the country, holding metal and stone images of deities that oversee busy streets and courtyards. Nepal has never permitted the export of its sacred cultural heritage. But that hasn’t stopped foreign buyers from coveting it, whatever the cost or consequences.

This global demand has fueled the looting of Nepal’s cultural heritage for decades. As a result, almost every Nepali has a story to tell about art theft. Today, worshippers often make do with replicas of stolen deities or even continue to honor empty pedestals, while existing heritage needs to be locked up in order to prevent looting.

Seemingly locked gate protects worshipped deity in Kathmandu Valley

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Lain Singh Bangdel, the Nepali scholar who systematically recorded information about missing deities in his 1989 book Stolen Images of Nepal, we know thatthe Lakshmi-Narayana statue was stolen in 1984. An American collector purchased it at auction at Sotheby’s in 1990. (The auction house claims, rather unconvincingly, that it is still researching the provenance information available to it during that sale.) The collector then gave it to the Dallas Museum of Art on long-term loan as a promised bequest.

The museum installed the Lakshmi-Narayana statue in a gallery reminiscent of many other places where Asian art is displayed in the United States: blond flooring, stark white walls, fluorescent track lighting bouncing off glass cases. These are echoey, clinical spaces, halfway between an empty swimming pool and a set for American Psycho. The Lakshmi-Narayana could not have been farther from home.

In Nepal, worshippers place garlands of marigolds and silk around the necks of sculpted deities, anoint their foreheads with turmeric and sandalwood powder, and heap fresh fruits and vegetables at their feet. These sculptures, integral parts of Nepal’s living heritage, were violently reduced to artworks when ripped from their shrines and transported to private and public collections abroad.

Two deities surrounded by burning oil, offerings and garlands in Kathmandu

In a museum gallery full of sculptures made centuries ago, visitors might think that their missing heads or feet are symptoms of the damage of time. But often, these are recent injuries, performed by looters or thieves snatching art for the Western market — sawing off heads to increase their profit by selling them separately, or hacking a sculpture out from a temple wall so rapidly that they leave the feet behind.

The ultimate beneficiaries of this ongoing, international, exploitive trade in stolen heritage have been the museums and collectors in wealthy, culture-consuming countries. As scholars of looted art, we are excited that the Lakshmi-Narayana statue is returning to Nepal. But we also can’t help thinking of the many other missing stolen gods that are part of Nepal’s living heritage. The Dallas Museum of Art itself holds dozens of sacred objects — many recently acquired — that were once worshipped in communities across South and Southeast Asia.

We simply will never be able to pinpoint the time and place of the theft of many, if not most, of this stolen heritage. But this should not matter. Museums and collectors should realize that certain categories of sacred objects, like those from Nepal, never left the country legally or with the permission of communities that made and worshipped them. They should realize they have a moral obligation to reverse the exploitive, violent, and condescending history of their relationships with Nepal and other source countries.

The headline for the local Dallas newspaper’s coverage of the repatriation read “FBI and Dallas Museum of Art Team Up to Send Stolen Artwork Back to Nepal.” In truth, it was far from a team effort. It seems that the curators never checked Bangdel’s book to see whether they should be concerned about their new trophy. Then, once a coalition of activists and scholars brought the theft to their attention, the museum lawyered up and demanded what seemed like endless further information. There would have been no need for the FBI to get involved at all if the museum had actually cooperated as actively as they are praising themselves for doing in their press release, now that the repatriation is complete.

The museum’s press release claims that the repatriation began in November 2019, when “new information became available concerning the provenance of the stele.” The passive voice implies that it was the museum itself that discovered this information (which, by the way, was hardly new). This erasure of the work of outside activists and researchers cleverly discourages future repatriation claims by making it seem that this museum had everything under control. But, as the Lakshmi-Narayana case shows, this is hardly true. Museums often are reluctant to take action and are eager to ignore any information they can unless subjected to public scrutiny.

Activists, journalists, and culture lovers in Nepal and in the Nepali diaspora are now working together to find stolen heritage and make repatriation claims, in order to return stolen gods to their rightful owners and context. But everyone who goes to (United States) museums has a role to play. It seems that museums are reluctant to repatriate art when they think their core audiences and donors won’t care if they keep it. We need to make it clear to our museums that we do not want to walk around in galleries of stolen artworks.

Community shrine under lock and key in Bhaktapur

Unlike many of the other effects of imperialism, war, and economic exploitation, the damage of stealing deities can be undone. It is time to reach true awareness — of the unconscionability of retaining pillaged sacred heritage. Let’s make this right.

Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College (City University of New York), is the author of Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments (Norton, 2022).

Emiline Smith is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK). Her research concerns the trafficking, protection and repatriation of cultural and natural resources in Asia. Follow...