DMA Returns Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana Believed to be Looted From Nepal

by Christopher Blay March 8, 2021
Screen Shot From Erin L. Thompson's Twitter Account

Image courtesy Erin L. Thompson

A story that Glasstire first published in January 2020 about a Nepalese sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art has a new development. In that story, Erin L. Thompson, Associate Professor of Art Crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), asserted that the Lakshmi-Narayana (elsewhere described as Vasudeva-kamalaja) statue, on long-term loan to the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), is a stolen artifact from Nepal.

The DMA reported last Thursday that in collaboration with the FBI and the Embassy of Nepal, “With the full support of the object’s lender, the Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana is being transferred to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, where it is believed to have been taken from a temple in Patan.” In our 2020 story we also reported that the DMA has previously returned works to their originating countries or regions: Turkey, in 2012, as well as some Greek and Etruscan pieces the following year.


Screen Shot From Erin L. Thompson’s Twitter Account.

Thompson’s article from 2020 breaks down the DMA story like this: Artist Joy Lynn Davis, who paints photorealistic images of stolen deities from Nepal, did an image search of the Lakshmi-Narayana after it was highlighted by Nepali writer and activist Kanak Mani Dixit as one that meant the most to him. Her Google image search flagged the statue (which Davis knew had been stolen from a temple in Kathmandu in 1984) in a blog post featuring works at the DMA. The statue was on view around November 2019, and was removed from view in December, after Thompson posted on Twitter (see image at top).

Thompson revealed in her article, and in an interview with Glasstire, that the statue had been put on long-term loan at the DMA dating back to 1990. It had been purchased that same year at Sotheby’s New York by a collector named David T. Owsley, “a prominent collector of antiquities and long-time patron of the Dallas Art Museum.”

In her interview with Glasstire, Thompson stated: “My larger concern, which I hope comes through in my article, is that there could be so many more sacred sculptures stolen from Nepal, or antiquities in American museums where we don’t happen to have this clear of evidence of theft.” She continues: “And we need to as museums do better in trying to figure out where the objects come from. The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year had to give back a golden sarcophagus from Egypt because they bought it with faked passport paperwork.”

Screenshot of Erin L. Thompson's tweet about a sculpture listed as stolen, which appeared in a Dallas Museum of Art Exhibit.

Screenshot of Erin L. Thompson’s tweet about a sculpture listed as stolen, which appeared in a Dallas Museum of Art Exhibit.

For its part, the DMA states: “The Dallas Museum of Art  is  committed to responsible stewardship of the objects in our care  and rigorous provenance standards.  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. We are pleased to ensure the safe transfer of this invaluable object to its home  in the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, and we are grateful to the Embassy of Nepal and the FBI for their collaboration.”

“Most reputable American museums belong to either the American Association of Museums or the American Association of Museum Directors, which have guidelines to regulate new acquisitions of antiquities,” Thompson states further. (The new guidelines were enacted in 2008.) And while those regulations prohibit new acquisitions of questionable provenance, museums don’t have to scrutinize works in their collections or on loan that predate the guidelines. “Museums are in charge of deciding whether or not they have enough paperwork to satisfy that requirement, so there’s nobody looking over their shoulders.”

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R March 9, 2021 - 08:54

I wonder if the DMA will investigate other objects from this lender, David T. Owsley?


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