Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Thousands of stolen artefacts await return ticket home

By Razen Manandhar

KATHMANDU, May 30 - Thousands and thousands idols stolen from Nepal, mainly from Kathmandu Valley and its vicinity, since the 1950s are waiting their return home from various museums in Europe and the Americas. Yet the authorities seem to be nonchalant about it.

Knowledgeable experts claim, between 50 to 60 per cent of the Valley’s works of art have been stolen in the last five decades. And, little has been done by the government to restore the pre-historic images of such deities as the Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwora, Durgabhawani, Laxmi and so on to their original places.

Not that it is impossible to return the stolen heritages. Many of the new western owners have returned a dozen such stolen idols in recent years. Examples abound. A 11th-century idol of Uma Maheshor was returned in September 2000 after about 18 years in a German museum, barely a year after another American antique-collector returned three ancient images of Hindu deities that were stolen from various temples of the Valley. The American returned the idols in August last year.

"We have never tried to use the convention from our sides," said an officer at Department of Archaeology, the body responsible for preserving and protecting the countries’ cultural heritages. The process of claiming such stolen images needs certain "diplomatic channels". But, in the past three decades, Nepali government has not even decided who and how the present owners of the Nepali artefact should be reached, the officer said.

The concerned authorities are shedding off their shoulders from even sending application letters, the basic requirement to go through the long procedure that includes two countries and the international institution working for the conservation of heritage.

United Nation’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) launched steps to curb this international trade of artefact as early as 30 years ago.

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibition and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970, was the first international legal instrument to tackle these issues of world’s concern. There are 91 state parties, including Nepal, signatories to the convention.

According to the Convention, the State Party of origin requires to go through diplomatic channels and with evidence to its claim, another State Party will seize and return cultural property on its territory stolen from a museum, religious institution or public monument. And the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995 on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects enhances the former convention’s resolutions.

Prof Kumar Khatri, the former chief of Central Department of Culture at Tribhuwan University said that Nepali government has enough grounds to claim those countless images scattered in so many museums, private collections and curio shops around the World. "We have rights to bring them back. But the crux of the problem is that even the government authorities are ignorant of the international convention."

Khagendra Basnet, the secretary-general of Nepal National Commission for UNESCO said that it is not the commission’s duty to retrieve stolen artefacts.

Gyan Chandra Acharya, the spokesperson of Foreign Ministry, said bringing such artefact according the convention is not easy. "In principle, those owners should return the idols, but we can’t ask them to return all just because they were taken away from Nepal," he said.

Former Ambassador to France and permanent representative to UNESCO Keshav Raj Jha said that we have not been able to utilise the provisions of the convention, though it was made especially for countries like Nepal that has been a constant victim of illicit trade of cultural objects.

"Only a channelled application is needed to find out our property. UNESCO and other institutions have a network to find out such items world-wide and finding is not very difficult too," he said.

He claimed that Nepali government does not want to claim such stolen artefact because "some high-profile people, some above legal restrictions, are responsible in smuggling them out".

He recalled that when he was the Ambassador to France he saw an ancient wooden image and wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nepal with needed documents of evidences to stake a claim. "But after a year or so, I got an irresponsible reply which suggested me to read a book on stolen images and do the needful accordingly,"

Art theft is not only the problem of Nepal. UNESCO reports state that between 30,000 and 40,000 cultural objects are stolen each year in France and Italy. In 1995, insurance companies in the United Kingdom paid out nearly one billion US Dollars for artwork stolen in that country.