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The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been in possession of this 130-centimetre-tall wooden statue – once a strut supporting the roof of the Ratneswar temple, one of Nepal’s oldest – since 2000.Jenni Carter/Bequest of Alex Biancardi (2000) / Art Gallery of New South Wales

An 800-year-old relic that was stolen from a temple in Nepal and ended up in an Australian art gallery has become a diplomatic dilemma for the two countries, as a social-media campaign is ramping up efforts to bring it home.

Nepalis are demanding to know why the unnamed goddess, carved in the 13th century, is still in the hands of the publicly funded Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The relic was once a strut supporting the roof of the Ratneswar temple, one of Nepal’s oldest, located in Sulima Square in the city of Patan. The Australian art gallery has been in possession of the 130-centimetre-tall wooden statue since 2000.

“I was surprised to see how the wooden strut is still kept as a prized exhibit at one of the galleries in Australia,” said Naresh Chitrakar, a Patan resident who learned of the artifact’s story when it was posted on the Facebook page “Lost Arts of Nepal.”

“How it was smuggled out of the country is a mystery, but many say that it was looted in around the 1980s.”

That was around the time an American art scholar studying Nepalese art, Mary Slusser, started documenting and photographing the Sulima temple’s elaborate struts, or tunalas, which still supported the pagoda’s roof in 1982. Looters took them all within two months of her visit. Authorities relied on Dr. Slusser’s photographs to help with restoration efforts.

Nepal banned the export of historical and archeological objects through the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1956. But that did little to prevent the plunder of antiquities and religious artifacts, which are now sold in countries across the world.

To this day, no one seems to know how the medieval-era wooden strut was smuggled out of the country. It was donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by the estate of Alex Biancardi, a renowned collector of Asian art, in 2000.

The fight on social media to have the carving returned to Nepal has also led to calls for the restitution of other stolen treasures that have ended up with Western museums and private collectors.

Sweta Gyanu Baniya, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, visited the Art Institute of Chicago this June and discovered an intricate gilt-copper necklace that was stolen from a temple in Kathmandu 45 years ago.

“My heart decided to bow down and pray. While we can only visit Nepal’s Taleju temple once a year – here in Chicago it is accessible to all the visitors,” Dr. Baniya tweeted.

In March, 2021, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation returned to Nepal a 12th-century stone sculpture of Laxmi Narayan, a manifestation of the deity Vishnu, stolen by looters in 1984. The eight-armed figure reappeared at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in 1990 and was sold to a collector who then lent it to the Dallas Museum of Art.

The decision to return that artifact was regarded as a victory among Nepalis who are hoping for a similar outcome in their efforts to repatriate the goddess from Australia.

“The return of the statue could be a good start of returning several relics stolen from Nepal. The government and local authorities must be prepared for restitution,” Mr. Chitrakar said.

The growing pressure has prompted the Art Gallery of New South Wales to look into that possibility.

“The Art Gallery has been working with colleagues in Nepal to determine the most appropriate approach to returning the sculpture,” Simone Bird, the gallery’s head of public affairs, told The Globe and Mail in a written statement.

“This is a very important negotiation and one the Art Gallery will continue to work on actively. We are committed to returning this significant carving to Nepal.”

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