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April 21, 2021

Restitution announcements sometimes don't (or can't) tell the whole story

Yesterday ARTnews broke a restitution story that a looted sculpture was in the process of being sent back home to Nepal, thanks to the help of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artefact, en route to Kathmandu, was referred to as a caturmukha linga, also sometimes called a Shivalinga or a Mukhalingam.  Yet despite its differing names, these votary linga represent the Hindu god Shiva.  In this instance, the object in question has four faces, each pointing toward a cardinal direction, evoking different aspects of the sacred deity.

According to the article's author, Alex Greenberger, Senior Editor at ARTnews, the museum declined to name the collector identified as the holder of the artwork. One of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago said only that the antiquity in question "had never been accessioned" into their collection.

The Illinois museum also did not provide clarification on the artefact's collection history or elaborate further on how they knew the idol was stolen, or when, or from where, the Shivalinga had been removed.  All this empty space surrounding a restitution is indicative of formal or informal confidentiality agreements and sometimes these are the only means of ensuring a collector, or his or her heir(s), agree to relinquish an artefact voluntarily.

Underscoring this, an email, from the embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal had only limited details and cited that an “agreement” had been reached between the object's holder and the embassy for the caturmukha linga's voluntarily surrender.

But to answer the question on every provenance researcher's mind, I've outlined what we have been able to determine, prefacing it that all this information is available in open-source records available to the public if you are willing to dig a bit deeper.

Last December Nepal's news service Kantipur Daily issued an article discussing an artefact from Nepal in the custody of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. That artefact was described as a four-faced Shivalinga of the Lichchhavi era (approximately 400 to 750 CE).  The sculpture was said to have previously been in the Christie's Collection in London until 1997 when it was purchased at some point by a private individual and ultimately taken to the United States.   Sometime after that, the Shivalinga was presented to the Art Institute of Chicago, apparently as part of the Alsdorf Collection.

Image Credit: POLYMath Design
Businessman and investor James W. Alsdorf, who died in 1990 at 76 years of age, was one of Chicago's top art collectors, as well as chairman of the board of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1975 to 1978. His wife, Marilynn Bruder Alsdorf, an art collector in her own right, died in 2019. The couple is survived by a daughter and two sons as well as numerous grandchildren.  

Over the years the Alsdorf donations significantly enriched the collections of North American Museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.  Their collection, before it was broken up, donated, or sold, was an example of cross-category collecting and encompassed antiquities, works on paper, European and Latin American art, and Indian and Southeast Asian and Asian art as well as paintings by Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, Joan Miró among others.  Yet some of the objects the ancient art they collected have raised some questions as to whether or not the Alsdorfs conducted sufficient due diligence before purchasing pieces for their collection.

As a testament to their relationship with The Art Institute of Chicago, the Alsdorf's generosity made possible a Renzo Piano-designed renovation to the institution's Alsdorf Galleries for Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art.  It is here where a considerable portion (approximately 400 objects) of the Alsdorf Collection is now viewable.

Outside Illinois,  the couple's sway in the art and political world was no less influential.  Mr. Aldsorf was appointed to the U.S. Information Agency's Cultural Affairs Committee, first by President Ronald Reagan and later by President George H. W. Bush.  But back to our stolen artefact.

In July 1984, the mūrti in question disappeared from the southeast corner outside the Panch Deval, part of the sacred Hindu Pashupatinath Temple Complex on the western bank of Bagmati River which runs through the Kathmandu Valley.  A photograph of the caturmukha linga, noting the period of its theft, is depicted intact on page 117 of Lain Singh Bangdel's book, Stolen Images of Nepal, published in 1989.   The previous height of the four-faced artefact was 28 inches, unfortunately, those who stole it saw fit to hacked it in two, leaving only the upper 16 inches preserved. 

The Pashupatinath Temple Complex

How this sacred mūrti was smuggled out of the country and into London remains an unanswered (or unpublicised) question. As does what import documentation accompanied the mūrti after its purchase in the United Kingdom and upon entering the United States. 

What is clear, is that Nepal's gods, often leave the country by brutal means, ripped away or sawed into transportable sized hunks, only to be orinamentalised in the homes of private collectors.  This time it took almost 27 years to right a past wrong.  But at least this one 1271+-year-old beloved object is, at last, going home. 

If you would like to follow the identifications of Nepal sacred objects in circulation, please follow the Nepal Pride Project on Twitter or Lost Arts of Nepal on Facebook