At some point in the 1980s, looters swiped a stone sculpture of a Hindu diety from a small shrine in Nepal. After several years on the black market, it appeared at auction at Sotheby’s. Despite a complete lack of provenance, the art auction house sold it to a private collector, who in turn loaned it to the Dallas Museum of Art.
The sculpture is a Nepalese stele, a slab-shaped sculpture intricately carved and able to stand freely. It depicts Lakshmi-Narayana, an eight-armed manifestation of Vishnu and Laskmi, and it stood in its shrine to watch over the Nepalese city of Patan for over 800 years. After Nepal opened its borders in the 1950s, archeological looting became epidemic in the small temples and shrines up and down the Kathmandu region, with another surge in the 1980s.
The Patan stele remained in the Dallas Museum of Art until 2019, when an expert raised questions about its provenance, because of the sculpture’s clear origin in the Kathmandu Valley. The F.B.I. got involved, the statue’s identity was confirmed, and this week in mid-March, the stele will be transferred from the museum to the Nepali embassy in Washington D.C.
“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,” Agustín Arteaga, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are pleased to ensure the safe transfer of this invaluable object to its home.”
Whatever price the Nepalese stele brought the looters or any subsequent middlemen is unclear, but Sotheby’s is selling similar sculptures for between 4000 and 126,000 GBP ($5,500 to 175,500 US) in virtual auctions today. Hopefully, they have done a better job understanding where those came from.