By Razen Manandhar
The Kathmandu Post (Kathmandu, Nepal)
Saturday, June 8, 2002
KATHMANDU, June 7 : The return of a 293 year-old head image of Dipankar Buddha, stolen from Patan four months ago, and recovered recently in an Austrian museum, is less likely soon as concerned authorities have shown lukewarm response to the pressure from the local guthi members to bring it back.
A source in Austria suspects that it reached there through legal channel, though Nepali law strictly forbids export of any 100 plus year-old cultural objects. He, requesting anonymity, claimed in his letter dispatched to a local Buddhist scholar that it was "exported ‘legally’ with all the seals from the National Archives". The 1.2 metre high idol of gilded copper with precious stones and ornaments was stolen mysteriously from Chuka Baha Guthi House on February 16, as it was reported by the caretaker Sanu Chhori Shakya and was seen in public for the last time in August 2001, the guthi members said.
Being a state party of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, UNESCO 1970, Nepal holds rights to claim its any antique artifact that is culturally significant to the local community.
However, the Austrian Government has shown interest to return that idol after it found being sold to the museum. "The idol has been confiscated and the government is ‘very much’ interested to return it to Nepal soon. It is now waiting for a formal request from the Nepal Government to return it," said an Austrian expatriate, currently living in Kathmandu.
The idol was unexpectedly found in Ethnographic Museum in Vienna a month ago, with the help of a German Buddhist scholar who had been to a Patan festival where the head image was exhibited last year.
The idol was to be sold to the museum at Rs 13.65 million (182,000 US dollars) by a person claiming to be an international art dealer. Currently, the idol is under protection of the museum. Sanunani Kansakar, the director general of Department of Archaeology (DOA), the government body to conserve any cultural object over 100 years old, said that it has already forwarded the request letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to initiate process to bring the image back to Nepal.
But an officer at DOA, requesting anonymity, said that it is yet to be verified that the idol is the same stolen from Patan. "We can’t verify it by only looking at two photographs and there is no inventory of the existing or stolen art objects in DOA," he said. And Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the documents to the Nepali ambassador in charge of Vienna, who lives in Berlin.
It is not yet clear whether the documents sent were complete or not. Meanwhile, a news dispatch form German news agency DPA stated that "There would be inquires into the route by which the Buddha-head had been smuggle to Austria."
Heritage experts here suspect that the government officers prefer to remain silent, as claiming the idol would stir hornet’s nest.
"In fact the government officers do not want to claim them as it would mean revealing the chain of smugglers. That is why, Nepal has not claimed a single stolen idol found in overseas though Nepal has signed international conventions on this regard 30 years ago," said Keshav Raj Jha, the former ambassador to France and representative to UNESCO.
However, Min Bahadur Shakya, chairman of the Nagarjuna Institute of Buddhist Studies, said that he would do his best to bring back the Dipankar at any cost, even to set an example. He was the first one to get the information about he finding of the idol in Austria.
"The return of the Dipankar would set an example and may also raise a curtail on the racket of antique smugglers." The locals filed an application at DOA on May 8 to accelerate the process. And they have also sent a request letter to Interpol unit of Vienna.