Book Reviews

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The Gods are Leaving the Country

Art Theft from Nepal

by Jürgen Schick

First English translation 1997.
212 pp., 192 plates in b & w and colour. 29 x 22 cm.

ISBN-10: 974-8299-19-8 Softbound: $35.00
ISBN-10: 974-8299-20-1 Hardbound: $48.00

Book review by Neil Brodie

(Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, Issue 6, Spring 2000)

Strangely, it seems that in Nepal statues of the kindly elephant-headed god Ganesha are only very rarely stolen. Are they are left alone out of veneration perhaps? No, apparently not. The author of The Gods are Leaving the Country suggests instead that as the statues do not accord with Western aesthetic tastes, they are not collected and therefore are not stolen. Pretty much everything else is though, as seen in this book, which provides a photographic record of the damage caused to Nepal’s cultural heritage by the superheated ‘Asian Art’ market.
   Jürgen Schick first settled in Nepal towards the end of the 1970s and in 1981 he began photographing the stone sculpture of his adopted country. These statues, which depict deities of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons, might be anything up to two thousand years old and are still worshipped as part of a religious tradition that is very much alive. Unfortunately, it did not take long for Schick to realize that that they were under attack as, increasingly, he came across dismembered statues, vandalized shrines and emptied niches. His project changed from being, in his own words, ‘a documentation of beauty to a documentation of destruction’. This book is the document of the destruction. It contains 186 photographs of over 160 pieces which have since disappeared or been disfigured, including some ‘before and after’ photographs, two of which show the appalling mutilation of a sixteenth-century statue of Sarasvati, a beautiful image featured intact on the front cover. The decapitated torso is shown inside.
   Schick suggests that by 1970 almost all of Nepal’s bronzes had already been smuggled out of the country but that the stone sculpture was still relatively intact. Its removal started early in the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1984, and now not a temple survives in the Kathmandu Valley that has not been visited by looters. They were often armed and at Svayambhunath a priest was killed when trying to protect a statue. The despoliation seems now to be in decline, perhaps because, as the author suggests, not much remains to steal. What little does is often obscured by iron grilles or secured by iron bars and cement. Ugly, and not always effective—the sixth-century Ekmukha Shivalingam of Pashupatinath was set into a large concrete drum; unable to remove it the thieves broke off its nose.
   The international dimension is emphasized again and again. Clearly, most of the looted material ends up in public or private collections in, the west but there is another telling reminder that the illicit trade in such material is well-organized . The first, German, edition of this book was published in 1989 and in 1996 the office of its Bangkok publisher was broken into and 80 of the original photographic slides were stolen. The photographs must have had somebody worried.
   As a result of this book, and also of Lain S. Bangdel’s Stolen Images of Nepal, some of the Gods now look set to return. In 1999 a Los Angeles-based private collector returned four pieces to Nepal, including the head of the Sarasvati statue featured on the front cover of the book. The collector wishes to remain anonymous, out of shame perhaps for taking part, however remotely, in a major act of cultural vandalism.
   The Gods are Leaving the Country provides a visual commentary on the callous sack of a nation’s heritage, and it is difficult in words to convey the full sense, or horror, of its message. It has to be seen, not talked about, and it deserves a wide circulation. At the very least it would be nice to see it piled high in the bookshops of those museums in both the United Kingdom and the United States which continue to collaborate with the trade in the now annual ‘Asian Art’ weeks.

[Read a review from The South China Morning Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]