Thursday 18 November 2021

The 'Unplundering" of Nepal’s Artefacts


                  Artist and scholar Joy Lynn Davis’                 
artistic rendering of an 18th century
Ganesh stolen in 1988 from
(Photo: Joy Lynn Davis)

Over the past few years, we have been hearing about many repatriations of Nepali artefacts, returned by museums and private collectors from across the world. These are mostly religious sculptures, often hundreds of years old, and being identified in foreign collections increasingly by citizen-led groups like Lost Arts of Nepal and the newly established Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. "As the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act makes it illegal for any antiquities more than a hundred years old to be removed from their places of institution, many of the Nepali artefacts that are in museums, galleries and private collections abroad are believed to have been taken illegally" ( Prasansha Rimal, 'The unplundering of Nepal’s artifacts', The Record November 18, 2021)
The question, however, remains: how did these Nepali artifacts leave the country in the first place? [...] [it seems that this] art theft only began with the entrance of the British to India. Previously, such artworks were only seen as objects of worship, not of interest to collectors and museums. It was the British that began to cart away artifacts by the truckloads from the countries they colonized.
But Nepal was never colonized by the British and remained largely closed-off to the world until the collapse of the Rana regime in 1950. It was then that foreigners began to arrive in Nepal and an interest in Nepali art began to take hold.
According to historian Mahesh Raj Pant, in 1967, interest in Nepali art arose after king Mahendra sent Nepali artifacts to New York for display at the Asia House Gallery. The exhibited artifacts were later brought back, but they would introduce the international art market to Nepali craftsmanship and create a large demand that would be met illegally.
“Later, German art historian Stella Kramrisch published a book called Art of Nepal, which was based on the same exhibition, and this attracted westerners to Nepali artifacts,” said Pant. “Art historians themselves have played an important role in getting our artifacts stolen and displayed in foreign museums.” [....]
A 2018 Al Jazeera documentary titled Nepal: The Great Plunder also showcases how artifacts were smuggled or sold. The video sheds light on how easy it was to illegally obtain ancient artifacts. In the documentary, the seller can be seen time and again assuring customers about the export of the artifact. “Don’t worry about customs. It is illegal but I can manage. I can fix the deal under the table,” says the seller. What is even more interesting is the fact that the seller has connections with museums abroad.

Who, however, should pay the costs of conservation of items that were first damaged by being removed and acclimatising to new environmental conditions (humity changes, temperature, light damage) in the foreign collector's display or storage, and then acclimatises back as it is transferred back to Nepal? 


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