The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney announced Friday that it would return an intricately carved temple strut, or tunala, depicting a Hindu goddess to Nepal.
The strut, looted from the 13th-century Ratneshwar temple in Lalitpur, a city southeast of Kathmandu, will be returned in a ceremony attended by Australia’s assistant foreign minister, Tim Watts, at the Patan Museum in Kathmandu on Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Friday.
“This is a significant gesture in line with Australia’s commitment to the highest standards of ethical practice and international obligations,” Watts told ABC News Australia. “The return of this tunala to Nepal will further strengthen our bilateral relationship.”
The strut is carved in the form of a tree god known as a shalabhanjika or yakshi and was one of six such struts stolen in 1975 from the shrine. It is thought to have been stolen after Mary Shepherd Slusser, a scholar of architectural studies and Nepalese cultural-history, identified the woodwork at the temple in Lalitpur, during which she photographed the pieces. Shortly after her visit, the ornate woodwork pieces went missing.
Thousands of important artifacts were stolen and illegally smuggled out of Nepal during the 1980s, and, in recent years, there have been extensive grassroots campaigns to see those artifacts, many of which now reside in major museums, returned to the country. The Ratneshwar temple strut became a target for those campaigns in 2021, when Nepali scholars identified it on social media.
AGNSW obtained the strut in 2000, when Australian-British art collector Alex Biancardi bequeathed 79 sculptures and textiles to the institution. Biancardi was an avid collector of South Asian art, and was known to be connected to disgraced antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020 prior to facing trial for smuggling offenses in the United States.
Antiquities that passed through Latchford’s hands have repeatedly been found to have been looted, and, in recent years, repatriated. In February, 70 gold relics connected to Latchford were repatriated to Cambodia, just the latest such tranche of works to be returned to their home country this year.
AGNSW was informed in early 2001 that the strut was stolen, according to director Michael Brand, but it took many years to establish the provenance, confirm that it was “illegally removed,” and negotiate its return. During that time, AGNSW held the object, in accordance with Australian law, as a “repository of last resort,” arguing that it was not safe in its country of origin.
The temple had replicas of the struts installed in 1992 and, Brand told the Herald, it is possible the repatriated strut will be reattached upon return, but “that is a decision for professionals in Nepal.”