The Repatriation of Lakshmi-Narayan from the Dallas Museum of Art, 2021
Press coverage about the repatriation:
“Dallas Museum of Art to Return Sacred Statue to Nepal”
Zachary Small, New York Times, March 4, 2021
“US museum returns stolen Nepal god”
Alisha Sijapati, Nepali Times, March 2, 2021
“How a Tweet Led to the FBI’s Return of a Looted Nepalese Sculpture”
Valentina Di Liscia, Hyperallergic, March 9, 2021
“Stumbling Towards Repatriation”
Erin Thompson and Emiline Smith, Hyperallergic, March 11, 2021
March 2, 2021
Announcement by Joy Lynn Davis (Artist and Researcher)
I finally have permission to announce something I’ve been working on for a long time. In 2015, while documenting art theft from Nepal, I located a stolen sculpture in a museum in Texas. The museum was reluctant to return it, so we built a case for repatriation, and we won. Today it will start its journey back to Nepal!
Here’s the long story:
THE PROJECT (BACKGROUND TO THE STORY)
From 2010-2015, I did an art and research project documenting the theft of sacred stone sculptures from Nepal’s temples and shrines. The project began as an interest in Himalayan art history, but quickly morphed into a passion that pushed me to quit my job, move to Nepal, and use my savings account to fund the work. I cycled, took crowded buses, and rode on the backs of friends’ motorbikes all over the Kathmandu Valley, looking for the shrines and temples where Hindu and Buddhist sculptures had been worshiped for hundreds of years before they were stolen in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. When I found people who remembered the lost sculptures, I interviewed them about their memories and feelings.
The stories people shared were incredibly interesting and beautiful. People told me stories of how the gods (the sculptures) made themselves too heavy to be carried, forcing thieves to abandon them in nearby fields or forests. People described how the gods had made the thieves sick and caused their cars to crash, to thwart their attempts to steal the sacred sculptures. People told stories of hearing the thieves in the middle of the night and chasing them, catching them, beating them, and forcing them to parade through town wearing a garland of shoes (a great insult in Nepal). People described how when they were children they would talk and play with the sculptures, and how when the sculptures disappeared, they wept is if they had lost a member of their own family. People told me how the sculptures of their gods protected them or helped them – how Lakshmi-Narayan eased the labors of childbirth, and how Ganesh, the beloved elephant-headed god, helped them find their keys and wallets.
I was moved too, by the life and beauty of the places the sculptures were stolen from. When you see these sculptures in auctions and museums, gleaming on their pedestals, you might think they were part of an ancient culture and dug up out of the ground, but that is not at all the case. They were actually part of a vibrant, living culture, and worshipped daily until they were stolen. Some sculptures originated from big temples on busy city streets, which are still visited by waves of devotees and guarded by street dogs. Some were stolen from ponds and mustard fields on the edges of sleepy hill villages. Others came from beautiful, old water fountains and small roadside shrines.
I decided to use my skills as a painter to share the beauty of the sites and the original sculptures. Each giant watercolor painting took months. I painted the sites in color, exactly as I saw and photographed them, faithfully copying each brick and stone, as well as the life at the sites — worshippers, children, dogs, and birds. I painted the stolen sculptures in 23 karat gold, copying each detail from historical photographs of the sculptures, or from newer auction and museum catalog photographs. The paintings are a kind of bridge between the past and the present, and also an image of an imagined future when the sculptures can be repatriated to Nepal and worshipped again.
The other half of the project was research. I first collected data about thefts previously documented by Jurgen Schick, Lain Singh Bangdel, Sukra Sagar Shrestha, Mary Slusser, Govinda Tandon, and others into a database. Then I systematically visited, photographed, and interviewed at those sites. At many sites, people told me about other more recent and undocumented thefts, some of which had occurred only weeks before. By 2015, my database had grown to include over 220 stolen stone sculptures. When I started my research in 2010, Interpol’s database of stolen art included only 6 stone sculptures from Nepal. In 2016, I worked with UNESCO and Interpol to bring that number of officially registered stolen stone sculptures to 160.
At the same time that I was building a database of thefts, I was also building a separate database of sculptures from Nepal that had ended up abroad. I scoured online museum catalogs, books, auction records, and even Pinterest and Google Images.
LAKSHMI-NARAYAN’S RETURN HOME
In 2013, I was living in Patan, Nepal, was an artist in residence at Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre, and had a painting studio at Patan Museum. On my lunch breaks, I often walked to a nearby temple, where a beautiful sculpture of the god Lakshmi-Narayana had been stolen in 1984. The theft had been first documented by Lain Singh Bangdel in his book Stolen Images of Nepal (1989). The sculpture is half male, half female. One side is of the goddess Lakshmi and the other is of the god Narayan (Vishnu). Writer, editor and activist Kanak Mani Dixit had brought this particular sculpture to my attention because it had been auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York in 1990, but the records of who had purchased it were not made public. So essentially, it had gone missing again. (In his 1999 article “Gods in Exile” in Himal magazine, 1999, Kanak Mani Dixit exposed Sotheby’s sale of the Lakshmi-Narayana.)
I painted this sculpture and its originating temple, both to draw attention to the fact that Nepal’s sculptures were being auctioned internationally, and increase the chances of locating it. The detailed painting took 5 months to complete.
In March 2015, about a year after I finished the painting, I was doing one of my routine Google Image searches, when I scrolled down to something that made me gasp. There she was, amidst all the thumbnail images – blurry, but unmistakable. Without knowing the history of the sculpture, a blogger had photographed the Lakshmi-Narayan sculpture while at an event at the Dallas Museum of Art.
I told my collaborators – activist, editor, and author Kanak Mani Dixit, and Professor of Himalayan Art History Dr. Dina Bangdel – that I had located the sculpture. Dina planned to visit Dallas and hoped to speak to the curator about the possibility of repatriation, but a month later, in April 2015, earthquakes hit Nepal and our priorities shifted. Unfortunately beloved Dr. Dina Bangdel passed away in 2017. I do not think she had the opportunity to speak with anyone at the Dallas Museum of Art.
In 2017, I exhibited the paintings and research, and gave a talk about the illicit trade of Nepal’s cultural heritage at a conference on the ethics of the art trade at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. I used the Lakshmi Narayan sculpture as a case study. There I met Dr. Erin Thompson, Professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2019 she approached me about writing an article highlighting the case of the Lakshmi-Narayan. Her fierce and meticulously researched article about the sculpture, museum, and collector was published in Hyperallergic in January 2020. Just before the article was published, Dr. Thompson informed the Dallas Museum of Art of the sculpture’s provenance and they removed the sculpture from display. However, the museum was not immediately willing to return the Lakshmi-Narayan sculpture, which prompted the FBI to get involved. I had the privilege of serving as an expert witness, providing information about the sculpture’s origins, theft, auction in 1990, and all publications it had appeared in before and after the theft, as well as photographs, GPS data, and a map of the temple location. The Embassy of Nepal in Washington D.C., Nepal’s Ministry of Culture and Department of Archeology, the Lalitpur Metropolitan Office, neighborhood residents, and Kanak Mani Dixit, Rabindra Puri, Dilendra Shrestha, and other activists in Nepal, as well as Dr. Erin Thompson were also involved in the claim for repatriation.
And we did it. We won. Lakshmi-Narayan is going back to Nepal, after 37 years away from her home temple in Patko Tol, Patan. Lakshmi-Narayan is quite possibly a thousand years old, and was very likely worshipped continually until the theft in 1984. The last 37 years may have been a short journey in Lakshmi-Narayan’s life, but for the devotees in the community, it was a long absence. Lakshmi-Narayan will be joyfully welcomed back as a god once again.
The sculpture begins traveling back today. I am told that official press releases from the FBI and other agencies are forthcoming.
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to all involved, with special thanks to Lain Singh Bangdel and Jurgen Schick, who courageously documented the thefts of Nepal’s cultural heritage in the 1970s and 1980s, at the peak of the looting. They braved enormous risks, and without their work and photographs, we would have only memories of so many of Nepal’s lost gods. The documentation efforts by them, as well as others after them — Govinda Tandan and Sukra Sagar Shrestha in particular — make it possible for us to recognize them in auctions and museum collections around the world, which will hopefully lead to more returns.
May all the gods return home!
For more information about my project, including images of the paintings, and a map and database of thefts, see rememberingthelost.com. The goal of the project is to show the beauty of Nepal’s sacred stone sculptures, highlight past and current research, build a comprehensive database of thefts, and increase awareness of the problem of art theft from Nepal, in order to ultimately decrease the market for stolen art. The project is primarily self-funded, but exhibitions and corresponding activities have received support from UNESCO, the Swiss Embassy in Nepal, and the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics. The paintings and research have been exhibited at Nepal Art Council, Patan Museum in Nepal, the University of California – Santa Barbara, and Washington & Lee University in Virginia. I hope to exhibit this project at other locations in the U.S. and Europe. Please reach out if you have ideas!
March 4, 2021
Update by Joy Lynn Davis
Yesterday I sent the Dallas Museum of Art a gift thanking them for their repatriation of the 10-11th century Lakshmi-Narayan sculpture that was stolen from a temple in Nepal in 1984. I sent them a limited edition giclee print of my painting of the sculpture in its original temple.
The museum was reluctant to return the sacred sculpture and hired lawyers to fight against it. I don’t know exactly what their arguments were for retaining it. I only know that we had to build up a case to win its return. To me, as someone who has spent extensive time living in Nepal and studying Nepal’s cultural heritage, this seems absurd for several reasons.
1) Every ancient stone sculpture outside of Nepal was taken out of the country illegally. Stone sculptures are not private property in Nepal, they are public property, owned by entire communities. No one had the right to sell or buy them. They stood in public temples and shrines, at water fountains and in fields. They were broken and pried from their shrines, stolen and exported illegally. Both Nepali laws and international laws prohibit the export of Nepal’s ancient art.
2) Nepal’s stone sculptures have enormous cultural significance. To their communities they are manifestations of living gods. People visit them daily, touch them and give them rice, sweets, water, flowers, and other offerings. In return the gods offer protection and assistance. People have worshipped this way for hundreds of years, generation after generation venerating the same sculptures. After the sculptures were stolen, communities mourned their losses, worship decreased, and communities were forced to fund replacement sculptures to continue their cultural traditions.
3) Stone sculpture is an art form that continues in Nepal. Artists work in the same techniques that they have for hundreds of years, learning by studying the great examples of their ancestors. Why should Western countries hold Nepal’s masterpieces, while artists in Nepal can only see them online or in books?
4) When sculptures are removed from their shrines and sold abroad, their history is lost, often forever. In order to sell them, dealers strip away all evidence of where they came from. Then museums show them out of context. When you see one of Nepal’s beautiful sculptures in a museum, you don’t have the opportunity to learn about the temple, the community, or what the sculpture was worshiped for.
5) Lastly, Nepal’s cultural heritage was stolen relatively recently, just since Nepal opened their borders to foreign tourists in the 1950s. Most stone sculptures were stolen after 1980. There are still people alive today who remember them. If they are repatriated soon, that connection can be restored.
I’d like to pose a question. Would you, as a visitor to a museum, rather see the ancient sculpture gleaming on its pedestal against a white wall… or would you rather stand in front of a replica of that same sculpture, while viewing video documentation of the stone-sculptor who worked to create the replica, and footage of the ancient sculpture being returned, consecrated, celebrated and worshipped once again in its temple, while hearing about its cultural significance through the voices of its originating community?
It is time museums seriously reconsider their roles. Are they educational institutions with a global consciousness? Or colonial institutions which hold, decontextualize, and profit from their collections of looted objects? The latter is an outdated model. There is a better way forward.
Here is the text of the letter I sent to the director of the museum:
“On behalf of the Himalayan Art and Cultural Heritage Project, I would like to thank you and everyone at the Dallas Museum of Art for repatriating the 10-11th century Lakshmi-Narayan stone sculpture to the country of Nepal. This beautiful mūrti is part of Nepal’s rich cultural heritage and a source of pride for Nepal’s people.
I am enclosing a limited edition gicleé print of my painting of the mūrti in its temple. I painted the original painting in 2013-14, as part of my project “Remembering the Lost” (rememberingthelost.com) which documents art theft from Nepal. When I painted it, we knew that the sculpture had been auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1990, but did not know where it had ended up. The painting was my vision of a future in which the Lakshmi-Narayan mūrti could be located and reinstalled in the temple in Patan. In 2015, a year after I finished the painting, I located the Lakshmi-Narayan sculpture in the South Asian Art collection at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Your gift now makes the vision of this painting a reality. After 37 years, it will once again be possible for the people of the Patko Tol neighborhood in Patan, to worship the mūrti as a living god, the way their ancestors did for a thousand years before it was stolen from temple in 1984.
Sincerely, and with gratitude,
Joy Lynn Davis
President, Himalayan Art and Cultural Heritage Project”