The Antiquities of Nepal: It is time to start listening to communities whose possessions have become objects of international co


The Antiquities of Nepal: It is time to start listening to communities. whose possessions have become objects of international consumption

It is not seemly nor of good report

That thieves at home must hang, but he that puts

Into his overgorged and bloated purse

The wealth of Indian nations, escapes.

TO CONSIDER THE ETHICS OF collecting cultural property is to consider what is good and bad or right and wrong, what is the moral duty and the obligation of the collector, or of the society which functions as collector. Moreover, the formulation of any such ethics requires that we not be influenced by the biases of any specific profession; any ethical system should not be conveniently structured to preserve the privileges enjoyed only by those who, through their rationalized acquisitiveness, have made it necessary to consider the ethics of collecting cultural property in the first place.

Since the passage of the UNESCO "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property" in 1970, there have been various legal maneuverings and an ongoing debate in the United States - the world's biggest art importing market. We have witnessed the quirky McClain decision of 1977, which centered around the attempted sale in the United States of Pre-Columbian artifacts illegally exported from Mexico, and various attempts to have it overturned. We saw the passage of the Cultural Property Act of 1983 which has done close to nothing to stem the tide of illicit trade. Yet throughout the past 21 years of testimony and argument, lobbying and deliberation, what has been conspicuously missing from national debate has been consideration of the perspective of the victim.

These following few pages will, then, substantiate the case of one particularly aggrieved nation, add a bit of evidence into the pool of information we weigh as we speculate on ethical conduct, and appeal to common sense as we struggle toward interpretations. The particular victim of which I shall speak is the Kingdom of Nepal, in whose capital city I had the good fortune to reside from 1980 to 1984. I lived there first as a United Nations Volunteer in the employ of UNICEF, and subsequently on my own as a photographer, writer, and researcher. It was there, sadly, that I encountered first hand the theft of antiquities and first began to question and investigate this undeniable form of injustice. Now, several years since my departure from that most hospitable country, I find myself in a position in which all I can do is state what should be ethically obvious: Nepalese culture belongs to the Nepalese first and foremost, and so do their antiquities.

Yet there are those who would dispute these assertions, or at least those who behave as if they do - not only for Nepal but for all the cultures of the world - and therefore we debate the ethical issues involved in collecting cultural property.


From a cynical perspective, considering the ethics of any activity is just so much wasted effort. Men and women will never live up to abstract standards of any sort, to matter how noble or apparently true, no matter how much lip-service is paid. Furthermore, cynics will say, it is unrealistic to think that anyone can formulate an ethics to govern the disposition of cultural property. Such an ethics must encompass and satisfy the values and rights of every culture in the world, given that the international art trade has invaded every conceivable "source."

Yet an effort is necessary, and plausible. It is necessary because what is at stake is far more than objects of monetary, aesthetic, or scholarly value. What is truly at stake is the very soul of humankind - past, present, and future. The highest hopes and aspirations, the loftiest ideas, the most valuable notions ever conceived have been enshrined in wondrous works or art.

But over these last few decades as never before, we, merchants of culture, we, self-appointed custodians of humanity's greatest heritage, have caused irreparable damage to so many of these wonders and have betrayed the very notions of conduct and value that they symbolize. In denigrating the past, we denigrate ourselves and our posterity.

There is another reason why the formulation of a proper ethics is necessary. Without a standard of conduct to which we can commonly aspire as equal citizens of this earth our global village, we will never have a chance to mutually solve the conflicts of interests that plague this messy business of the international trade in antiquities. An ethical basis upon which to determine conduct is likely to offer a more enduring model of consensus that those which are presently determined by international might - political and economic.

If the necessity of establishing an ethics of collecting cultural property is accepted, its plausibility becomes a moot question. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. We could simply begin by laying down some ethical axioms or principles inspired by religious tradition. "Thou shall not steal" seems an appropriate commandment to consider; the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath) would no doubt also provide ample food for thought in this context.

Because we live in a rational age that is uncomfortable with the maxims of revealed Truth, however, the determination of what is ethical can be left to common sense, that universal faculty whose source is the incorruptible kernel of truth to be found at the core of every human being. If we rely on common sense, we will not need specialists to carry an excessive burden in the debate. Common sense, too, has the added virtue of recognizing the obvious truth with childlike simplicity. Without too much fuss or complication, it can determine what is truly in the interest of art and humanity and separate it from what is in the interest of a particular institution, a specific collection, an individual pretension, or a bank account.

Lest the reader mistrust the exercise of relying on common sense, it should be pointed out that it is a faculty long recognized by epistemologists. Cartesian thinkers have seen it as something evident by the natural light of reason and hence common to all people. More prosaically, Webster's Third International Dictionary defines it as "good sound ordinary sense: good judgment or prudence in estimating or managing affairs esp. as free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety or as not dependent on special or technical knowledge."

Armed with common sense, let us see what it can do. Take the term cultural property. By attaching an adjective (cultural) to a commonly understood noun (property), we have created a stratum of materiality that somehow is beyond the reach of ordinary notions of ownership, theft, and restitution. If you are caught with property that does not belong to you, then you are a thief. If you are caught with cultural property that does not belong to you, however, no one is quite sure what you are. Does this make sense? Common sense?

This terminology distances us from the victims of this somehow special class of dishonest acquisition; the language we are using shields us from the odious fact that the people whose antiquities are being stolen are the victims of a crime we most certainly allow, and often even condone.

Over the years, we have listened to the perspective of the nation's art dealers, and we have listened to the perspective of the nation's scholars. But there has been nobody who has given voice to the perspective of the villagers who wake up one morning to find their God missing from the temple. They never before had to consider their community's possessions as objects of international consumption, and they are scarcely in a position to hop a plane and explain the sorrow of their loss. Because of the omission, it was almost as if the debate between aesthetes and scholars was a debate that was trying to determine which of the two parties had a greater right to be the keepers of the world's cultures.

We can perhaps excuse the omission because the debate was not being carried out for the purpose of arriving at a standard of purely ethical conduct, but rather to balance and protect in legal terms the conflicting rights and privileges of the players of an abusive international competition. Here, however, we are pondering the right and wrong of these matters, and it is imperative to consider the perspective of the victim as we deliberate, with common sense as our guide, an ethics of collecting antiquities.


Presented here is evidence concerning the fate of antiquities in Nepal, evidence that was gathered, at least initially, wholly by accident. Nevertheless, this tiny Himalayn kingdom - geopolitically defenseless, geo-graphically remote, and economically impoverished - presents us with a case study almost perfect in its proportions and invaluably instructive. By examining what has happened there over the course of more than 40 years - the period of time it has been open to outsiders - we are presented with a microcosm of the social devastation that can result from the foreign imperative to study, catalogue, and collect.

Nepal is a small landlocked country wedged between India to the south and China to the north. One wise Nepalese prime minister once likened its position to a yam stuck between two boulders. While from a political perspective Nepal may indeed be seen as a tuber in a precarious position, from a cultural perspective, on the contrary, it has held immense importance. For centuries, Nepal, and most significantly the Kathmandu valley, functioned as a cultural crossroads, a centerpoint for the great caravan routes that stretched between India and Tibet. Together with the loads of salt and grain that traversed its territory came and went goods of a different and perhaps more important sort: religious ideas and cultural influences that have shaped the development of the whole region. Nepal in a sense was a great switching station for the spiritual and intellectual impulses that traveled up and down this chain of human exchange.

The caravan route brought in its path great surplus wealth. Moniers were poured into impressive public works - temples, fountain complexes, monasteries, and palaces - and both the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions which developed symbiotically were articulated in complicated and unique forms. Today, Nepal is the home of a form of Mahayana Buddhism found nowhere else in the world, a complex of belief and practice that holds clues to older forms that have since been wiped out.

For the greater glory of these esoteric ideas, generations of artisans developed a tradition of craftsmanship that became renowned throughout Asia. Working with wood, stone, meal, and hand-ground pigmanes, these artisans, of an ethnic group known as Newar, came to be in great demand in the courts of neighboring kingdoms, and today their handiwork is in evidence in every city and village of the Kathmandu valley. Miraculous works of art enshrined in and decorating temples, at crossroads and points of religious epiphany, can be seen at every turn of the head. Almost anyone who visits Kathmandu refers to it as a "living museum," and no amount of repetition is likely to turn the epithet into a clichTé.

Yet Nepal is a living museum in a far more profound way as well. The treasures of its many temples are in the hands of select groups whose job it is to safeguard and display them on appropriate religious occasions. Annually, each temple, for example, will play out the mythological drama of its resident divinity through a festival. The temple's images, adorned with ornaments, are proudly displayed. Similarly, wealthy families who possess their own images, or community institutions through donations of poorer individuals, engage in this custom.

The festival calendar punctuated by frequent displays and processions functions as a museum system in its own right. The masses of people who go on pilgrimage to see the sacred objects, or who partake in a procession, are annually reminded of their common heritage and are bound together into a solid social network of shared beliefs and responsibilities. Because these images are so rarely seen, they remain sacred, and these displays of art are crucial in keeping religious meaning and cultural traditions alive.

Until the 1950s, few foreigners had ever visited Nepal. The Ranas, a family of autocratic oligarchs which ruled the country for over a century, had successfully kept the country independent of colonial domination and in isolation. Following a revolution that restored the monarchy to power, Nepal embarked on a program of development, aided by the richer nations of the world, and threw its doors open to the international community. By 1975, more than 100,000 tourists were flocking to the "Himalayn paradise" annually, and more and more foreigners were becoming residents as development projects and embassy representations expanded. Today, there are direct flights from Kathmandu to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Karachi, Rangoon, Dacca, Dubai, Colombo, New Delhi, Calcutta, and various other cities in India.

Nepal is naturally and culturally fascinating, and aside from the tourists, it has drawn an ever-increasing number of scholars and researchers of every stripe. Over the course of just a few short decades, they have accumulated vast quantities of knowledge for the benefit of humanity. Yet this knowledge, too, has been put to a more pernicious use, for it allows us to name and number, appreciate rarity, and, finally, assign value. When it comes to antiquities, this is dangerous knowledge indeed, for it allows a market to be defined and for people to smuggle and deal. Now, there exists a professional group of Westerners who reside in Kathmandu a significant portion of the year and whose primary vocation is the smuggling of antiquities.


Yet this is not a new phenomenon. These smugglers have simply taken over the job from less single-minded predecessors, others who have done the same job under the guise of being scholars or embassy or foreign mission employees from just about every major Western country. That the antiquities of Nepal have been steadily disappearing is simply proven by looking at the number of museum and private collections of this loot, or even by simply paging through art magazines and noting the advertisements for galleries specializing in Nepalese art. These galleries in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, and New York like to do business "by appointment only."

Several years ago, I entered a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York and came face to face with a seventeenth-century torana from Nepal. Toranas, beaten in metal or carved in wood, sit above the doorways to the inner sanctums of all major temples in Nepal. An integral feature of temple architecture, they function as a kind of iconographic blueprint, portraying on their surfaces the deities a devotee can expect to encounter inside the temple. On this particular torana was an incarnation of Siva, one among the triumvirate of great Hindu gods, sitting in meditation. At the back of the gallery, however, behind a desk in the inner sanctum as it were, sat not Siva but an art dealer named Krishna.

Seeing the torana on Madison Avenue struck me as wholly unnatural, if not sacrilegious, and I couldn't help inquiring how the hell this object had come to be where it was. I was promptly escorted out the door. Since then I have become more adept at masking the intent of my curiosity, and in a subsequent conversation with a well-respected and venerable old dealer of oriental art, I was candidly informed that Nepalese antiquities are really peripheral luxuries of our culture. If we possessed none of them, we would hardly be impoverished.

"There are collectors who are serious and genuine, but most are - let's say `extroverts.' They want to show off. It's an ego trip. A collector will want Nepalese art because it is different. Nor many people are collecting it. It's exotic," this dealer explained. "And anyway, Nepalese art is not really suitable for the modern mind. It has so many curlicues. It might look good with French furniture, but that's about it. Don't you agree?"

This dealer was a rather endearing fellow. I wish I could say the same about another dealer I happened to meet recently who had the demeanor of a smug parasite. He had just returned from Nepal with five exquisite (by his account) pieces and had already found his buyers. He was well aware of what I thought about what he was doing, and he made the claim that never has he "smuggled" anything out of Nepal. After some circumlocutions conversation, I established that every piece he has exported has had an appropriate stamp from the department of archaeology, easily acquired by paying a large enough sum of money to the man in charge of the wax and the official government seal.

I also established that this dealer had little concern for the country that provided the bounty upon which he lived. He had more to say about the opening of a new restaurant than about the events of the year (1986) that were socially, economically, and politically significant: the advent of television; the installation of a new government under a new prime minister; the attempted assassination of a prominent journalist at home in bed in the dead of night; the opening of the border with Tibet to tourists; a crackdown on heroin smuggling that implicated former government ministers. Surely these events must have left a trace that could be tasted in a place other than a new restaurant. I could not help feeling that I was conversing with a human sponge that had found a rather comfortable niche, affordable, balmy, and exotic.

If I heap what appears to be an inordinate amount of opprobrium upon this poor man, it is only because in the context of this discussion of ethical behavior, such contempt seems deserved. It is true that he is freely and honestly fulfilling his desires and engaging in free enterprise which we encourage and hold so dear. A bit of common sense, however, makes it clear that this sort of behavior is presently detrimental to the cultural integrity of many Nepalese, and also in the long run harmful to our very own quest for knowledge and understanding. The price we pay for allowing this business is of a far more costly sort than the sums paid for an ancient masterpiece.

Anthropologists will testify to the breakdown of tradition that comes in the wake of the disappearance of art works. The indigenous museum system that has evolved over centuries is being threatened by the appetite of a more powerful and foreign one. Many wealthy families have stopped displaying their images, while many temples are now obscured by fences and iron grillwork which not only are aesthetically offensive, but which also prevent devotees from giving offerings and receiving blessings in a traditional manner.

At the same time, Nepal's own scholars have grown resentful of the rape of their country. One professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu had the following to say in a letter on this matter:

I have a friend who is an archaeologist who has all but given up his profession, because according to him, every time there is an illustrated lecture on the art history of Nepal delivered by [names deleted] it is almost 100 percent sure that the art objects discussed have vanished from Kathmandu. The United States' art historians have academically guided the art pillage of Kathmandu. (K.P. Malla, letter, 1984).

This is a rather damning and exceedingly straightforward statement from the pen of a man who speaks with some authority from the perspective of the victim. He did not mention, however, another reason why his friend may be giving up his profession. Aside from a few exceptional cases, the policy of the government of Nepal prohibits archaeologists from digging within the country, and this policy is likely to continue given what is happening to the antiquities that lie on the surface.

The Rising Nepal, the government's English language daily newspaper, lent support to this policy in an editorial published on 17 November 1984:

The need to provide security is clearly called for to ensure that our relics and artifacts from our past are not allowed to slip through our fingers and end up decorating a lovely - but foreign - museum or art gallery. If we cannot provide such security, it might be a good idea not to encourage such excavation work: our treasures may be safest under twenty feet of earth.

This is a shame, and we have only ourselves to blame. Indications from the few excavations that have been permitted point to an unimaginable wealth of secrets that lay buried in the rich soil of the Kathmandu valley. In addition, if the speculations of Gautam Vajracharya, one of Nepal's foremost art historians, are true, there are literally treasure houses of wealth buried under the ground. In a brief article which at first seems like a footnote to an arcane bit of architectural history, Vajracharya described the practice of burying treasure as common throughout many centuries that witnessed repeated invasions of the Kathmandu valley. He gave evidence of the existence of hitherto ignored underground caches of wealth beneath the backyards of medieval palace compounds (Vajracharya 1984).

The invaders who threaten the Kathmandy valley at the present time are of a different sort than previously, but their actions encourage the continuation of a drama of hide-and-seek. Unless the developed nations of the world, and the scholars, dealers, and collectors who live there, adopt a more responsible policy to safeguard the treasures of the world, Nepal's contemporary culture as well as its heritage will continue to be impoverished through theft, avarice, and neglect. The last and only resort for Nepal and similarly victimized nations may be to restrict cultural exchange and the honest search for historical understanding.


The case of Nepal presents an instructive example of the abusive and destructive nature of the present avenues along which the collection of antiquities gain ground. Most attempts to correct this situation have focused on various formulas to regulate and control this trade through legal mechanisms that have proven too complicated, ambiguous, and virtually impossible to enforce. The basic problem with all these treaties and laws enacted by nations individually as well as internationally is that they proceed from a negative point of departure: that is, they seek to prevent lucrative activity without any real authority, and capture malefactors without the ability to punish. While the efforts to initiate such mechanisms are necessary, they should go hand-in-hand with exploring ways of encouraging behavior in a positive direction.

One notion that we have clearly lost sight of is patronage, with the patron as the defender, protector, and advocate of a cause, in our case Art. The idea of patronage has degenerated over the course of time to such an extent that today we bestow on the collector the nobility of the patron. By no stretch of the imagination can today's collectors be seen as defending, protecting, and advocating the cause of Art.

After having seen the great artistic achievements of the Nepalese in situ, I cannot avoid the sensation of witnessing a great crime when I stand before those same antiquities wrenched from their living context and forever relegated as a curiosity in a well-humidified but hermetically sealed plexiglass cabinet. Exhibitions are instructive and entertaining, thus valuable, and the general public cannot be expected to travel halfway around the world to see the great works of other cultures. Yet we probably possess enough artifacts in our basements to mount unique exhibitions continuously for another century, and we can easily offer newly studied or freshly discovered masterpieces to the public through the channel of international exchange rather than theft, if only we would be willing.

There are those who argue that collectors are saving much of humankind's heritage from certain doom by extricating it from inimical surroundings of decay, neglect, instability, and poverty. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been for more than a decade the champion in Congress of art dealers and collectors, and has used his influence to maintain the status quo in this country's laws. "Nothing has been more striking than the respect which Western countries have shown for the artifacts of other countries," he once argued in Congress. While he and others are to a certain extent correct, this attitude betrays a paternalism that may show a respect for artifacts but a lack of consideration for the very countries in question.

This is where a revived notion of patronage comes into play. Instead of removing antiquities from their place of origin, could we not contribute to preserving them in situ? Could we not share our expertise and wealth to build museums large and small, and of still unimagined originality, all over the world? Could we not support the creation of new works of art, could we not make sure that the age-old knowledge preserved by today's threatened craftspeople be kept inviolate into the future?

These efforts until now have been primarily advocated by organizations such as UNESCO, which has had a bad name of late. There is no doubt that such efforts could also be championed privately. It has been estimated that the trade in antiquities reaches nearly a billion dollars per annum. Surely people with vast riches could exercise a bit of common sense and make a more visionary effort.

There is another positive direction in which efforts can be made that would benefit the public, enhance international understanding, and show respect for other cultures: we can refine our ideas of what is worth collecting and include the creative products of contemporary culture. By limiting our interest to valuable antiquities, we exhibit our avarice and declare to its victims that only their forebears ever produced anything of a standard of quality such as to merit our attention.

A few yeas ago I was in Puri in India, the holy city that is the home of the Lord Jagannath. There, on the broad boulevard, animated by the sound of the bare feet of countless pilgrims walking on the sandy street toward the grand temple, I found a stall in which icons enshrined in light bulbs were offered for sale. You could purchase for a few rupees a painted clay statuette of your favorite god of the Hindu pantheon, or even one of the Christ, set on a simple wooden base and covered by the shapely dome of a discarded Phillips bulb. They were the most charming constructions, and they spoke volumes about the spirit of devotion, about ingenuity, resourcefulness, and about a wholly different notion of value in a setting of humble poverty. Surely such things as these, or the clay figurines and colorful paintings made by devotees on festival days in Nepal, belong in our museums.

If such a notion seems far-fetched, we need only look at the same impulse in our own country, at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, where our own pilgrims are leaving mementos of every sort that are being collected and stored by the Park Service for posterity. I can imagine an exhibition of these a hundred years from now that would be far more instructive to our descendants about the heart and soul of our times - like so many gods in light bulbs - than any of the grand abstractions now being produced in the ateliers of Greenwich Village.

Finally, there is another more complicated and difficult step we can take in a positive direction, and that involves lifting the veil of secrecy which surrounds the international trade in antiquities. If this business is indeed to be conducted on an ethical basis, then we certainly should not have anything to hide. Yet, the assumption that transactions are entitled to be kept private pervades the antiquities market.

Paul Bator, a lawyer and member of the United States' negotiating delegation at the drafting of the UNESCO Convention, made the following trenchant observation in an article he published in the Stanford Law Review of January 1982:

It is assumed that buyers and the public have no business knowing where and when and for how much an object was acquired. It is the propriety of secrecy which is assumed; and it is secrecy which enables persons, otherwise aspiring to the highest standards of personal probity, to become accomplices in the acquisition of looted masterpieces.

The public must be informed constantly about the issues involved in the continuous pillage of our heritage. We must ask questions, and the public must be encouraged to ask questions. We must replace the reflexive awe with which we are taught to regard anything connected with the world of Art with a more realistic appraisal of the function and mission of this possibly exalted and exalting activity. Because we live in a society that values so highly the right to know, with enough clamor and properly directed outrage, we have a chance of lifting this veil of secrecy, and exposing to public disgrace - a most powerful and effective instrument of correction - those who would destroy the soul of humankind, those who would denigrate our past, present, and future.


Bator, P.

1982 An Essay on the International Trade in Art. Stanford Law Review 34(2):275-384.

1984 The Rising Nepal, Editorial. [English-language daily newspaper on the Nepalese government.] 17 November.

Vajracharya, G.

1984 The Treasure Garden: A Survival of Nepalese Landscape Architecture. Paper delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Asian Studies Conference.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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