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Art Gallery of New South Wales returns 13th-century architectural sculpture to Nepal


The Art Gallery of New South Wales, situated in Sydney, has willingly relinquished possession of a captivating carved wooden architectural sculpture, returning it to its rightful home in Nepal.

The ceremonial handing over of the 13th-century yakshi sculpture, a pivotal moment in this cultural journey, took place on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. The event was hosted at the Patan Museum in Kathmandu, graced by the presence of Assistant Australian Foreign Minister Tim Watts. This gesture marked not only a significant historical event but also served as a testament to the collaborative spirit between nations in the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage.

The masterpiece in question, a 13th-century temple strut (tunala) portraying a tree deity known as a yakshi, had been generously donated in the year 2000 as part of the legacy of Alex Biancardi (c1923–1998). However, in 2001, the Art Gallery of NSW uncovered the disconcerting truth that the sculpture had been unlawfully taken from the Ratneshwar Temple in Nepal’s historic city of Patan back in 1975.

Commencing in 2021, the Art Gallery openly signaled its willingness to facilitate the potential restitution of the artifact. Throughout the ongoing dialogues held with representatives from Nepali heritage organizations and the government, the sculpture continued to be housed within the confines of the Art Gallery’s custody.

Anticipating the sculpture’s voluntary return to Nepal, the Art Gallery of NSW Board of Trustees ratified the decision to deaccession the sculpture in the early months of 2022. In line with the legal stipulations of New South Wales, this act was endorsed by the Governor of NSW in October 2022.

Dr. Michael Brand, the director of the Art Gallery of NSW, expressed that the meticulous preparations leading to the return of the sculpture to the Nepalese people had been a product of collaborative negotiations. “Through close collaboration with the Nepali government and our counterparts in heritage organizations, the Art Gallery is gratified to have successfully identified a new home for this splendid 13th-century sculpture within Nepal,” stated Dr. Brand. He also extended his gratitude towards the Australian Government and the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu for their unwavering support in commemorating the sculpture’s return.

Dr. Brand underscored the Art Gallery’s steadfast commitment to adherence to established protocols. “Over the past decade, the Art Gallery of NSW has rigorously implemented protocols for the thorough examination of provenance and diligent research for all proposed art acquisitions, aligning with the prevailing standards of international best practices. These protocols ensure that our decisions remain legally sound, ethical, responsible, and transparent,” he emphasized.

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