Saturday, February 14, 2004

The homecoming

Stolen works of art smuggled out of the country with little or no hope of return. This is the story of one famous piece that found its way back thanks to the zeal of art lovers
Razen Manandhar
Well, sir, this it the unparalleled antique head of Dipankar Buddha, brought here from the great Himalayan culture, with utmost care. It would cost some 2,00,000 US dollars,” said Peter Hardt, the German art dealer. He had brought the two-feet tall gilded Buddha in a huge black box, with special glowing lamps too to impress his client. The instalment was simply magnificent.
Dr Schicklgruber, the curator for South Asian Art of the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna, was mesmerised to see the masterpiece from Nepal, a country he had hardly heard about. He suddenly wished to acquire it for his museum but he had never dealt in any such big business, so he didn’t venture a sum. However, he managed to convince the museum director, but was also worried whether the piece was genuine or worth that sum.
“I will inform you about our decision after consulting with some experts on Buddhist iconography,” he told the dealer, thinking that a thorough examination of the object’s antiquity is necessary before buying it.
This conversation took place in April 2002, at the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna. While talking, both might not have imagined that it could lead to a 19-month long story of smuggling, which recently concluded into a success story of return of the idol.
After meeting the art dealer, Dr Schicklgruber visited the University of Vienna in search some details the antiquity of the image. Co-incidentally, he found a scholar, who was academically and sentimentally also attached with Buddhism of the Kathmandu Valley — Prof Alexander V Rospatt. Looking at the pictures, the professor, recognised the Buddha head as a smuggled antique piece.
Rospatt was actually studying Buddhism in Nepal for quite some time and had seen the same Buddha, during the grand festival of Samyaka Puja in Patan (on this occasion, the Buddhists bring their clan idols to one open place for a public worshipping).
In fact, it was Dipankar, named “Kanakmuni Aju”, named after a Kanakmuni Shakya, a local merchant, who had erected the idol for the trust. Estimated to be 400 years old, it belonged to the local people of Patan and under care of the six-member trust at Chibah Nani of Nag Bahal. The have to take the idol to Nag bahal for Gunhla Punhee festival in August-September every year.
The idol was stolen mysteriously in February 2002, just two months before it was displayed in the Austria museum, from the house it was kept in. According to locals, only experienced hands could take it out from the old house with small doors. The trust members informed the police about the theft. Then the members almost forgot about the incident until the next Samyak festival in September 2002 and even then, they managed with a photograph of the stolen idol.
In stead of helping the curator buy the piece, Rospatt made a mission to rescue the ancient object from the art pirates and return it to the original owners in Nepal. He immediately wrote to Min Bahadur Shakya, a local scholar on Buddhist iconography, with the Buddha’s picture, to have it identified. And Manik Bajracharya of Lotus Research Centre also helped him in his mission.
Nepal, being a state party of the UNESCO treaty against smuggling of art objects, can also claim the destination country for unconditional return, through government and diplomatic channels. However, surprisingly, none among the four components — Nepali diplomats in Germany (also for Austria), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of Archaeology (DoA) as well as the locals — showed eagerness to have it restored.
Prof Rospatt collected all the documents from his Nepali friends and forwarded them to the Interpol in Vienna. This helped the Austrian authorities to act swiftly. The state attorney was informed about the incident and within a few hours, the court was in charge and issued an order prohibiting the sale of the Buddha head until the case was resolved.
The court case against the art dealer was referred to Germany. The case is now on and fortunately or unfortunately, the art dealer refuses to reveal the details of the people involved in the high-class smuggling. This prevented, as it usually happens, the smugglers from being punished.
The media made a hue and cry on this issue, which pressurised the concerned authority to have it brought back. The case drew attention when it was reported that the idol was taken to Austria through “legal channel” and it had a tag of DoA.
However, as a result of the hard work of the Austrian government and international scholars, the idol finally came to Kathmandu on October 24 last year. Austrian ambassador to India Jutta Setfan Bastl visited Nepal and acted also as the ambassador to Nepal to hand over the idol to the locals.
Keshav Raj Jha, the former ambassador to France and representative to UNESCO, said: “I have a bitter experience. The government officials just do not want to have them returned. I can say in most of the cases, the officials are directly or indirectly associated with the smuggling so they are reluctant to fight art smuggling.”
The objects could be as big as the Dipankar head, but they are also not returned from the airport. The thousands of art objects sold openly in curio market of France, Germany, USA and other countries also are the evidence that Nepali government has no idea of the art objects smuggled out.
Some two years back, UNESCO organised a symposium on trafficking of art and DoA committed to have a website designed for stolen art objects, three heads have come and gone in DoA but the website still seems distant.
The story of the return of the Buddha has recently ended after the local owners got the idol. Still, the three small idols of Tara, stolen on the same day from the same house, are yet to be recovered and after going through international propaganda, the experts have no hope that it will ever be seen anywhere in the world art market.
Published: February 13, 2004 12:00 am On: Entertainment

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