The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is preparing to hand back a sacred medieval wooden carving, nearly two years after it was identified on social media as being stolen from the Kathmandu Valley.
- The 1.3-metre carved wooden strut once helped to support the roof of a temple in Nepal
- It was donated to the gallery in 2000, but its director has now admitted it was illegally removed decades ago
- Gallery director Michael Brand says the institution has now reviewed its acquisition protocols
In 2021, concerns were raised that the 800-year-old temple strut in the AGNSW collection had been looted from the city of Patan on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
It was suspected to have been stolen with several others in the 1980s, and sold on the black market to Asian art collectors and museums.
The 1.3-metre carved wooden strut that once helped support the roof of the Ratneswar temple in Patan's Sulima Square was donated to the AGNSW in 2000.
After subsequent research, AGNSW director Michael Brand has now admitted the sculpture was "illegally removed" decades ago, and has said it will be formally handed back to the Himalayan nation next Tuesday.
Dr Brand said the AGNSW was "voluntarily" returning the carving to Nepal, and it had been formally withdrawn from the gallery's collection.
"Working closely with the Nepali government and heritage organisation colleagues, the art gallery is pleased to have learned of the new location in Nepal for this exquisite 13th-century sculpture," Dr Brand said.
Architecture historian Mary Shepherd Slusser first drew international attention to the Sulima temple in 1982, when she documented the intricately carved woodwork that held up the pagoda's two-tiered roof.
She photographed many of the ornate temple supports — known as "tunalas" — which featured the willowy figures of nature demigods, or Yakshis.The carving was identified via social media as having been stolen from Nepal.(Facebook: Lost Arts of Nepal)
Carbon dating has confirmed the temple was built about 1200 AD, making it perhaps the oldest pagoda of its type in Nepal.
Within months of Dr Slusser's visit, looters had stripped all but two of the 16 struts, leaving the temple in a state of disrepair.
Her photos later served as blueprints for an extensive restoration of the temple, in which the stolen architectural features were faithfully recreated by local artisans.
The AGNSW has confirmed the temple strut will not be returned to the site where it was stolen — and will instead be housed in the Patan Museum in Nepal.
How the medieval-era strut was smuggled out of the country remains a mystery, but it is known that thousands of stone, metal and wooden artefacts have been illegally removed from the Kathmandu Valley since the 1980s.
It was finally donated to the AGNSW in 2000 by the estate of Alex Biancardi, a well-known collector of Asian art.
There is no suggestion that Mr Biancardi knew the piece was looted, as stolen artefacts were often accompanied by fraudulent paperwork.The carving was stolen from Sulima temple in Patan.(Supplied: Saniaa Shah)
Gallery acquisition protocols reviewed
AGNSW director Michael Brand said his institution had now reviewed its acquisition protocols.
"During the past decade, the Art Gallery of NSW has put in place the necessary processes for provenance and due diligence research for all proposed art acquisitions and follows current international best practice standards," Dr Brand said.
"Such procedures ensure our decisions are legally and ethically sound, responsible and transparent."
The AGNSW is just the latest Australian cultural institution to be caught up in illegal art trafficking.
The highest-profile Australian case involved the National Gallery of Australia's (NGA) $US5 million ($7.46 million) Dancing Shiva statue which was in fact stolen and had been sold to the NGA with forged paperwork.
That statue was subsequently returned to India in 2014 by then-prime minister Tony Abbott.
Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts said he was "humbled" to be travelling to Nepal to ensure the carving was returned next week.
"This is a significant gesture in line with Australia's commitment to the highest standards of ethical practice and international obligations," Mr Watts said.
"Our relationship with Nepal has never been stronger, the Nepali-Australian community is the fastest growing migrant community in Australia.
"The return of this tunala to Nepal will further strengthen our bilateral relationship."