Sydney to repatriate 800-year-old looted temple carving to Nepal
The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney announces that Tunala, a Hindu deity, would be returned to Nepal.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney announced on Friday that an exquisitely carved temple strut, or tunala, representing a Hindu deity, would be returned to Nepal.
The strut, stolen from the 13th-century Ratneswar temple in Lalitpur, a city southeast of Kathmandu, will be returned in a ceremony attended by Australia's Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts on Tuesday at Kathmandu's Patan Museum, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
"This is a significant gesture in line with Australia's commitment to the highest standards of ethical practice and international obligations," Watts said to ABC News Australia. “The return of this tunala to Nepal will further strengthen our bilateral relationship."
The strut is carved in the shape of a tree deity known as a shalabhanjika or yakshi and was one of six looted from the temple in 1975. It is believed to have been taken when Nepalese history and architectural specialist Mary Shepherd Slusser spotted the woodwork at the Lalitpur temple and photographed it. The elaborate woodwork pieces went stolen shortly after her arrival.
Thousands of priceless antiques were stolen and illegally transported out of Nepal during the 1980s, and in recent years, there have been grassroots initiatives to get those relics returned to the nation, many of which now sit in prominent museums. When Nepali researchers discovered the Ratneswar temple strut on social media in 2021, it became a target for such initiatives.
The strut was given to AGNSW in 2000 by Australian-British art collector Alex Biancardi, who left the institution with 79 sculptures and textiles. Biancardi was an enthusiastic collector of South Asian art and was linked to infamous antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020 before facing trial in the United States for smuggling violations.
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Antiquities found in Latchford's possession have been regularly plundered and, in recent years, returned. In February, 70 gold artifacts associated with Latchford were repatriated to Cambodia, the most recent such shipment of works this year.
According to Director Michael Brand, AGNSW was told in early 2001 that the strut had been stolen, but it required many years to investigate the origin, confirm that it had been "illegally removed," and negotiate a return. For years, AGNSW maintained the object as a "repository of last resort," in line with Australian legislation, saying that it was not secure in its nation of origin.
The temple erected copies of the struts in 1992, and Brand told the Herald that the repatriation strut may be reattached upon return, but "that is a decision for professionals in Nepal."
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