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The American Scholar: The Goddess Complicated

The American Scholar: The Goddess Complicated

2023-04-25 14:20:08

Illustration by Doug Chayka

Illustration by Doug Chayka

In January 2020, in a distant, arid nook of southwestern Rajasthan, I used to be squeezed within the again seat of a Toyota SUV with my five-year-old son and Prachi and Prince Ranawat, a sister and brother, ages 23 and 18, from a dot of a city known as Parsad. On a bike, their father, Gajeraj Ranawat, adopted. The motive force propelled us alongside a parched roadway overgrown with candelabra cactus and bougainvillea, its pink and white flowers coated with mud. Sprays of yellow oleander spilled onto our path, and the screeches of langur monkeys echoed within the distance.

The household was main me to a temple advanced that when sheltered the so-called Tanesar sculptures, a set of 12 or extra stone figures relationship to the sixth century. Naturalistic, slender, luminously jadelike, and round two toes excessive, many of the sculptures depict mom goddesses (matrikas), with some holding a small youngster. Attendant male deities had been additionally a part of the set. In line with artwork historians, the Tanesar figures had been sculpted by an itinerant artisan guild as a type of patronage to native rulers. The sculptures had been related to fertility, however they had been additionally linked with terrifying elements of the all-encompassing mom goddess Devi in her manifestations as Kali and others—harmful, harmful yoginis whose energy eclipsed that of all of the male Hindu gods mixed. Over time, fearful villagers buried the sculptures in a subject, hoping to include their vitality. However later, when the sculptures had been feared no extra, they had been dug up and dragged to a small shrine to Shiva. There they got pleasure of place in an enclosure to the aspect of the construction. Sooner or later of their historical past, the figures grew to become focal factors for tantric prayer, with worshippers searching for a disintegration of the bodily self to meld into common consciousness.

For a few years, the Tanesar sculptures remained an integral a part of native spiritual life—unknown to anybody else. However round 1957, a distinguished archaeologist in Rajasthan found the figures after which revealed an article about them in an Indian artwork historical past journal, making an interior circle of Indian and Western artwork historians conscious of their existence. What adopted was a narrative all too acquainted on the planet of artwork and antiquities: someday round 1961, many of the Tanesar sculptures had been stolen. From what I’ve been in a position to piece collectively, they had been smuggled throughout the countryside, all the way down to what was then Bombay, throughout the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic—to Liverpool after which New York. The American artwork supplier Doris Wiener, who ran a gallery on Madison Avenue, had a hand within the export of a number of of them. One other landed on the British Museum by means of a separate channel.

Very quickly, the mid-century artwork world grew to become enchanted with the sculptures. Artwork sellers, collectors, and museum administrators eyed their potential value. In 1967 and after, Wiener offered six or extra sculptures from the set, for the equal of $80,000 every in at the moment’s {dollars}, to curators and collectors who had greater than an inkling of the doubtful circumstances of the objects’ visitors. She offered one to Blanchette and John D. Rockefeller III and one other to the Cleveland Museum of Artwork. The others handed from hand at hand earlier than arriving on the world’s most revered collections of South Asian artwork, together with the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork and the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (LACMA).

Mom Goddess (Matrika), beforehand on show on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, was seized in August 2022 by the workplace of the Manhattan DA. (Courtesy of the creator)

On August 30, 2022, the workplace of the Manhattan District Lawyer, Alvin L. Bragg, issued a search warrant for one of many sculptures, known as Mom Goddess (Matrika). On the time, it stood on a pedestal within the coolly lit gallery 236 of the Florence and Herbert Irving Asian Wing on the Met. The sculpture was seized, a part of a sweeping sting concentrating on works acquired by Wiener so long as 60 years in the past. Over the previous decade, greater than 4,500 allegedly trafficked antiquities have been confiscated by the workplace of the Manhattan DA. Instrumental on this work has been Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine colonel who led a authorities investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003. Of these antiquities recovered by the Manhattan DA, practically half have been returned to 24 international locations of origin, with India receiving the most important share.

So many sculptures seized and despatched dwelling, every with its personal story. It may be exhausting to see why any a type of tales issues within the specific. The repatriated artifacts will not be as nicely generally known as the Benin Bronzes, for instance, plundered from West Africa by British colonists, or the Parthenon marbles, eliminated by Lord Elgin within the early 1800s and now on show on the British Museum. They don’t seem to be symbols of empire, nor are they the spoils of conflict. Fairly, they’re emblems of one thing extra banal and arguably extra pernicious—the observe of mid-century antiquities looting that happened on such a scale that it contaminated practically each gallery of Asian artwork within the West.

The way in which ahead is neither clear nor easy. Within the fall of 2022, Mom Goddess (Matrika) lay in a crate within the Manhattan DA’s overstuffed storage facility whereas the search continued for every of the Tanesar sculptures offered by means of Wiener’s gallery within the late Nineteen Sixties. Mom Goddess (Matrika) and at the least 4 extra deities from the set stay in authorized limbo as legal professionals for the Met and different American museums increase questions on who owned the sculptures on the time they had been acquired by Wiener, and whether or not they actually did belong to the temple on the time of their theft.

One of many Tanesar figures, the sculpture bought by the Cleveland Museum of Artwork, remains to be on show there. Others stay, for the second, within the custody of LACMA and the Allen Museum at Oberlin Faculty. Past the purview of the U.S. authorized equipment, the Tanesar goddess on the British Museum at present resides among the many dutifully cataloged assortment of practically eight million objects not on view due to house limitations.

The sculptures might languish on this liminal state—crated, underground, or imprisoned in storage—however then, the liminal is the place the Tanesar goddesses have existed for a few years.

In 2020, I used to be a Fulbright scholar residing within the metropolis of Ahmedabad. I’d been researching the story of the Tanesar sculptures, having chosen the case as a result of it concerned one of many few thefts the place revealed pictures linked looted artifacts housed in Western museums to a particular origin website. I used to be drawn to the beatific, but unfussy artworks—although it was solely later, as I traveled throughout three continents to see seven of the sculptures in individual, that I fell in love with them.

Serendipitously, I obtained a textual content that very same morning from my buddy Abhi Sangani, an artwork historian in Ahmedabad, who’d gotten a tip from his cigarette vendor with the approximate location of the temple.

In artwork historical past texts, the village of Tanesar was mentioned to lie within the steep hillsides between the cities of Dungarpur and Udaipur, alongside the border of southern Rajasthan and Gujarat state. No map confirmed a spot known as Tanesar or, because it typically appeared in museum catalogs, Tanesara Mahadeva. Information articles had been of little assist. A number of articles within the Indian press and a 2007 piece in The New Yorker talked about Tanesar, however solely as a footnote in a seemingly unrelated story—that of the smuggler Vaman Ghiya and his arrest. So far as I may inform, no journalist or educational researcher had visited the positioning because the center of the final century.

The place to start out was Dungarpur. On the taxi journey from Ahmedabad, my son and I encountered a panorama the place algae-rich stripes of sedimentary stone—black, charcoal, inexperienced, and blue—shone within the roadcuts. The stone trade continues to thrive on this a part of northwestern India, the supply of constructing supplies, sculptures, and architectural decorations. Quarry outlets offered the blue-green schist recognized regionally as pareva, and vans rumbled by, carrying cubes of marblelike stone.

The subsequent morning, at a lodge in Dungarpur, the concierge advised me that his in-laws occurred to worship on the temple I used to be on the lookout for. He put me in contact along with his brother-in-law Gajeraj Ranawat. Serendipitously, I obtained a textual content that very same morning from my buddy Abhi Sangani, an artwork historian in Ahmedabad, who’d gotten a tip from his cigarette vendor with the approximate location of the temple.

That is how we ended up within the again seat of that Toyota SUV. And it was throughout that journey with the Ranawat household that I lastly understood why discovering the temple website had been so troublesome. As I traced the turns of the street on my telephone’s maps app, the coordinates for a temple got here into view. I zoomed in. Taneeshwar Madahav Tample, the map learn in English, a careless transliteration of the Hindi phrase beneath it: Taneshwar Mahadev Mandir. The {photograph} linked to the map confirmed the temple entryway, with its title in Devanagari script seen in blue lettering—Taneshwar Mahadev. Having studied Sanskrit and yoga philosophy, I knew that Taneshwar (or, given the conventions of Hindi and Sanskrit, Tanesvar, Tanesvara, or Taneshwara) means “Shiva” and that the phrase Taneshwar Mahadev interprets to “the lord Shiva, Shiva who’s the best god.”

Therein lay the reply to the primary thriller of this story: Tanesar was a temple, not a village. Think about if somebody had named New York Metropolis “Beth El” due to the synagogue on East 86th Avenue. No marvel journalists by no means reported firsthand from the Taneshwar Mahadev temple. In the event that they’d been trying, they might have been trying to find a village that didn’t exist. It’s fairly potential, after all, that no different outsider had ever tried to seek out “Tanesar” village. In any case, asking precisely how a smuggled object reached an esteemed gallery in a Western museum was not widespread observe till just lately.

Now, after parking off the jagged street, we handed a row of stalls promoting objects for worship—coconuts, incense, matches, squares of metallic foil, rectangles of pink nylon mesh trimmed with gold thread—and adopted a grand stairway as much as a temple plaza. Revelers in brightly coloured saris danced in a circle whereas males performed drums and long-necked, stringed gourds. Incense and oils launched a sticky, noisome odor. Smoke crammed the air, and langur monkeys leapt between temple buildings, with the Shisha mountain rising behind them. A priest in a white tunic and flowing dhoti pants chanted in Sanskrit and led the worshippers in a hearth ceremony meant to carry auspicious energies from the planets.

Ratna Chandra Agrawala devoted his life to the research of Indian artwork and artifacts. Within the Nineteen Fifties, he got here throughout the Tanesar matrikas throughout an exploration of southwestern Rajasthan. (From Ratna-Chandrika: Panorama of Oriental Research)

As a number of villagers gathered round us, my son went off to play, leaping from the retaining partitions separating the plaza and the stalls and poking a stick right into a heat spring that trickled down from the mountainside to the plaza. Then, with Prachi Ranawat translating, the villagers started telling me in regards to the statues’ theft. Everybody, it appeared, knew a model of the story, which had been handed down from mother and father and grandparents. In line with one account, a temple guard awoke one morning to find that many of the sculptures had been spirited away within the deep of evening. Alternatively, a white automotive arrived at nighttime and took the sculptures away. Or a madman got here and stole the sculptures. Or a person recognized to villagers by the nickname Kadva Baba got here and spoke to the priest in personal; cash was exchanged, and shortly afterward, the sculptures had been taken away. The oral historical past of the temple might have recorded many potential situations, however sure information remained fixed. Temple lootings had been widespread within the space on the time. And though villagers typically reported the thefts, police not often recovered the loot.

I heard an important deal that day about how vital the sculptures had been to native life. “If somebody didn’t have a baby,” one individual mentioned, “they worshipped the goddesses so they might have one. If somebody was affected by a illness, in addition they worshipped the goddesses.” One other supplied that worshipping the goddesses may carry a male youngster. The temple itself had been the positioning of a well-known miracle, others mentioned, a legend I heard about in larger element on one in every of my later visits. A priest would inform me a model of the well-known story of Surabhi, a cow that might get lost from its dwelling each day and are available dwelling dry. Surabhi’s proprietor, offended that somebody was apparently stealing his milk, secretly adopted the cow to the temple, the place he watched as its teats launched a flood of milk onto the bottom. This it had been doing each day, he discovered. Later, a statue materialized on that very spot, an emanation of Lord Shiva. “That was how everybody knew that the temple was magical,” the priest defined. And in the identical storytelling voice, he mentioned, “Thirty-five years in the past, a goddess statue was stolen from right here. Now, the federal government goes to ship her again.”

One factor was sure: the temple neighborhood would accept no compensation, financial or in any other case, in lieu of the sculptures’ return.

In the midst of the Twentieth century, Ratna Chandra Agrawala was the foremost archaeologist within the state of Rajasthan. He was the creator of greater than 400 essays and articles, many punctilious of their element. His life’s work as a scholar and as director of museums and archaeology for the state led him to register artwork objects, protect a lot of them in two regional authorities museums that he based and managed, and argue for his or her significance in Indian and worldwide arts journals. There was nothing shoddy about his work.

Born in 1926, Agrawala educated as an archaeologist in pre-independence India. In 1946, he labored on the dig that uncovered components of the Indus Valley website of Harappa, in what’s now Pakistan. Artwork historians who knew Agrawala throughout the next many years keep in mind his utter devotion to Indian artwork historical past and his palpable pleasure when requested to debate this topic, nonetheless underappreciated within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s. In a single {photograph}, Agrawala seems within the garb of India’s educated elite of the period, sporting a Nehru jacket and thick-framed glasses and sporting a trim, slim mustache. His thinness accentuates an intent expression in his eyes, through which I think about—maybe as a result of I’ve researched his background—a touch of each ache and triumph.

Round 1957, throughout what Agrawala described as “exploratory excursions within the areas of Udaipur and Dungarpur,” he encountered the Tanesar sculptures. For Agrawala, the artworks possessed a lovely dissonance, with their classical proportions, indigenous options, and the sparest of non secular accoutrements. They instantly gained his adoration. In 1959, he described what he had discovered within the Indian journal Lalit Kala. In 1961, Agrawala revealed a second article in Lalit Kala discussing the sculptures’ artwork historic significance. Included had been pictures of 10 of the sculptures snapped outside close to the temple. Leaning on rocks, the gods and goddesses resemble crime victims. They’re encrusted with grime and an unguent combine of gear associated to worship, which seemingly included milk, ghee, vermilion, and ash. Agrawala acknowledged that the sculptures had been at present getting used for worship (“below worship” was the phrase he used). He went on to lament that the sculptures “stay fully besmeared with pink lead and oil. It’s due to this fact not potential to scrub them for research.”

A 3rd article appeared within the French journal Arts Asiatiques in 1965. Right here, Agrawala revealed images of an extra sculpture and extra absolutely described the artworks and their materials, the luminous blue-green schist. One of many items, he wrote, “presents a woman together with her head bent in a sleek pose. That is distinctive in Indian Artwork. She places on the everyday sārī and the headscarf is showing on her proper arm. The facial features right here is extraordinarily elegant and so is also the case with spherical ear-lobes, single beaded necklace, broad face, strong breasts, and so on.” He declared the sculpture to be “a chunk of excellent workmanship,” including, as an apart, “the hair ornament is equally charming therein.”

The 1959 article recognized the temple as Tanesara-Mahādeva and its location as being close to the village of “Parsada,” a Sanskritized model of Parsad. Agrawala didn’t point out Parsada in his 1961 article, although he did cite his first article within the footnotes. However by the point the sculptures had arrived within the West, it was the 1961 article, not the unique publication, that was the usual supply on the topic, the first bibliographic reference for authors of museum catalogs. That is how Parsada received dropped from the document, changed by the fictional Tanesar.

However why didn’t Western museums monitor down Agrawala’s major supply materials? At some point, I arrayed earlier than myself, in chronological order, every bibliographic reference to the Tanesar artworks from 1959 by means of the Eighties, hoping to grasp how this scholarly laziness had occurred. The primary point out of the sculptures in an American publication appeared in a 1971 concern of the Allen Memorial Artwork Museum Bulletin of Oberlin Faculty. That concern was dedicated to an exhibition of works belonging to a distinguished collector and Oberlin alum, Paul F. Walter. Among the many artworks that Walter had just lately donated to the Allen Museum was Deva, a Tanesar sculpture that includes a lithe younger man with a serene, transported expression, carved from the blue schist.

One of many essays within the Bulletin, written by the artwork historian Pratapaditya Pal, curator of Indian artwork at LACMA, described 5 sculptures from the Tanesar set that Wiener had acquired after which offered to distinguished American curators and collectors. This included photographs of an extra sculpture, bringing the whole quantity documented in pictures to 12. The essay, a tour de power in interpretive writing, marked the sculptures’ entrée, like debutantes, into a bigger artwork historic dialog past the restricted viewers of India’s rarefied Lalit Kala.

Pal’s elegiac descriptions explored theories relating to the identities of the gods and goddesses, their artwork historic connection to different artworks from close by websites and distant facilities of artmaking in the course of the fourth- to-sixth-century Gupta Empire, and the trope of the mom in South Asian artwork. “Every of the items magically appears to have captured, as in a candid snapshot, a fleeting second of pleasure and playfulness,” he wrote. The matrika within the Cleveland Museum of Artwork “seems to be smiling as she tries to restrain her youngster. This sense of radiant motherhood is extra explicitly expressed in these matrikas from Tanesara than in some other Indian sculptures.” Deva had “the bodily properties of a human being,” and its face evoked “supra-human serenity and compassion.”

The Taneshwar Mahadev temple advanced, the place the sculptures had been housed. Native residents inform a number of variations of the story of how the figures had been stolen. (Courtesy of the creator)

The issue was, for all of the prospers of Pal’s lushly detailed and celebratory narrative type, the essay was additionally riddled with errors. It incorrectly recognized the “Tanesara-Mahadeva” temple as a village (with a footnote erroneously ascribing that element to Agrawala’s 1961 article). The title of the well-known regional rock was modified from pareva to pavena. And the title of a sister website that Agrawala had additionally explored morphed throughout the article from Kalyanpura to Kotyarka. These errors and others subsequently appeared in later works of scholarship.

It appeared odd that the editors didn’t catch these lapses. However once I learn the introduction to that concern of the Bulletin, I noticed {that a} basic romantic sensibility had prevailed over the mundane necessities of scholarly constancy. “To Western ears,” wrote Richard Spear, the Allen Museum director, “Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana and Ragamala are unusual sounds, as distant as Malwa, Hyderabad and Jaipur.” “Tanesar” was not a spot the place individuals lived and worshipped however a fantastic, fairy-tale locale. Additional embroidering this theme of exotic-domestic interaction, Spear described Walter, the collector and donor, as somebody who was “as more likely to be met within the studio of a younger artist in decrease Manhattan or a London public sale of Whistler etchings as within the Doris Wiener Gallery of Indian Artwork.” The relationships between supplier, collector, and museum curator had been cozy sufficient to fully subsume any query of how the artworks had been attained.

The fairy-tale environment additionally created an phantasm of purchaser innocence. It was all too widespread in mid-century America to deflect blame from those that acquired artworks that had been purloined by shady sellers. A charade of not understanding the specifics of any origin website insulated these on the prime of the antiquities trafficking chain—the Rockefellers, revered collectors, and museum curators who had bought or accepted the sculptures as donations. Even at the moment, this false ignorance prevails, regardless of its illogic. “For those who didn’t legitimately purchase the property within the first place, you possibly can’t move on title,” Manhattan Assistant District Lawyer Bogdanos advised me. “A stolen object by no means reacquires goodness. As soon as stolen, at all times stolen.”

Clockwise from prime left: Tanesar matrikas within the collections of Oberlin Faculty,the Nationwide Museum in New Delhi, the British Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Artwork (Courtesy of the creator)

By drawing consideration to the Tanesar artworks, Ratna Chandra Agrawala—irrespective of how noble his motives—ended up contributing to their theft. He was a part of a nationalistic motion, only a decade after Indian independence, to extend world recognition for indigenous statuary. This mission was shared by the editors of the Bombay-based journal Marg, which in 1959 cited Agrawala among the many Western and Indian artwork historians and archaeologists who impressed the “intelligentsia” and “women and men of tradition” to understand “the outstanding custom of carving which has miraculously survived in Rajasthan.” The editors additionally “earnestly attraction[ed] to the archaeologists” to “accord correct show” and facilitate “direct contact with the unknown masterpieces.” Agrawala did this, partially, by relocating two of the Tanesar sculptures to his authorities museum in Udaipur.

At this time, these stay within the Indian authorities’s custody, displayed in underwhelming circumstances that might absolutely rankle Agrawala’s ghost. One is simple to overlook, in a busy part of hallway on the Nationwide Museum in New Delhi, crowded between a potted plant and an exit signal. The day I visited, crowds of chattering secondary college students in authorities college uniforms raced previous, oblivious of the goddess. The opposite matrika, extra dispiritingly, resides at an Udaipur authorities gallery, in a desolate room that’s typically closed to the general public. After I lastly managed to get in, the lights didn’t work, and chipmunks had been scampering alongside the rafters. The matrika stood behind a case so not often dusted that I may barely learn the figuring out label by means of the glass. However once I was in a position to make it out, I noticed that the label had been swapped with that of a close-by sculpture from a special website. If Agrawala might need frowned at this unhappy scene, he additionally might have worn a small smile, understanding that the sculptures had been stored protected from looters all these years. Right here the matrikas rested, prepared for future generations—even perhaps these scores of secondary college students in New Delhi—to embrace the appreciation of Indian artwork that he and his cohort had labored so exhausting to instill in the course of the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s.

Agrawala, on the time, absolutely knew that the nationalist push for artwork appreciation was not directly encouraging the actions of looters, and the Nineteen Sixties would certainly witness a frenzied black market concentrating on the newly acknowledged statuary. “There was a way that in case you received it right into a museum, at the least you had been defending it from a number of the thieves,” mentioned Padma Kaimal, Batza Household Chair in Artwork Historical past at Colgate College and creator of Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis, a couple of set of sculptures exported from southern India within the late Twenties. “The environment was Wild West, assist your self. It was actually troublesome to guard the artwork.” Agrawala, she speculated, most likely “noticed these wonderful items, actually admired them, and knew how susceptible they had been.”

By the point my son and I had been touring in India in 2020, proof of that rapacious mid-century market, of pillage, was in every single place. Whether or not touring little-known ruins or UNESCO World Heritage websites, my son received within the behavior of enjoying a enjoyable scavenger hunt recreation. He ran from area of interest to area of interest stating locations the place elegant figures of gods and goddesses had been now not extant. “Lacking!” he declared to the native day-trippers. They had been nonplussed. It had been many years, in any case, since India had suffered a wholesale theft of its heritage.

Beginning within the late Nineteen Fifties, police started to seek out dust-covered, luxurious artworks on the grime flooring of godowns. This Indo-Portuguese borrowing from the Sixteenth-century spice commerce refers to warehouses and the objects certain for export inside. The objects found in a Gujarati cache in 1959 lay “in pitiable disarray,” one artwork historian reported. In 1968, police confiscated seven museum-quality stone sculptures from a godown in Bombay. Officers had been in a position to arrest a driver and his confederate, however the vandals jumped bail. After spending a number of months making an attempt to find the sculptures’ origins, authorities gave up and launched them to the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay. The museum’s announcement of the acquisition reported on a bigger scene through which sure areas of the nation had been “dacoit-infested” ( dacoits are armed bandits), with outlaws “performing in cooperation with some artwork sellers.”

In December 1969, Robert McCormick Adams Jr., an archaeologist who went on to grow to be Secretary of the Smithsonian Establishment, revealed a letter to the editor in The New York Instances. The letter responded to an early draft of UNESCO’s 1970 Conference on the Technique of Prohibiting and Stopping the Illicit Import, Export and Switch of Possession of Cultural Property. Signed by an extra six archaeologists, the letter famous an absence of “efficient measures to curb the commerce … by the museums and artwork galleries which can be amongst its principal beneficiaries.” The letter additionally identified that federal legal guidelines (which give tax exemptions for museums) “actually sanction looting.”

These museums started to obtain sleeves within the mail from museum administrators in India containing images of scorching artworks and requests to maintain an eye fixed out. One arrived on the Cleveland Museum of Artwork from the archaeological curator of the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, by licensed air mail. The curator, B. V. Shetti, wrote, “I’m enclosing herewith 14 black and white pictures out of the 23 [Indus Valley] seals which had been stolen from our Museum on twenty seventh February, 1970. … Kindly hold us knowledgeable in case you occur to know something on this matter.”

Sherman E. Lee, chief curator of Oriental artwork and director on the Cleveland Museum of Artwork on the time, had simply then acquired two practically an identical, unprovenanced seals from William H. Wolff, who as soon as mentioned with The New York Instances his “clandestine” and “unlawful” export of antiquities from Asia. After figuring out that the Cleveland seals weren’t from Bombay, Lee wrote a letter to Shetti:

We now have examined the pictures and lists and hasten to report that we aren’t conscious of any of those objects being available on the market this present day. You might relaxation assured that in the event that they do seem in any means, we are going to instantly inform you.

Might I add that it could be most useful for museums with important Oriental collections on this nation in case you and the opposite professionals in India would hold us knowledgeable of thefts of artworks. We’re as anxious as you’re to stop this exercise and to revive the works to the right house owners. The extra data we get, the higher we will cooperate.

By the point he despatched this letter, Lee had already bought one Tanesar mom from Wiener, understanding full nicely the chance it had been “stolen” or “illegally acquired.” I discovered this by finding out correspondence, situated within the archives of the Cleveland Museum of Artwork, between Lee, Wiener, and others.

This museum has taken a management position in investigating questionable acquisitions in its assortment and exploring how present-day curators can proper the transgressions dedicated by those that got here earlier than. The museum’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian artwork, Sonya Rhie Mace, devoted two years to analysis into the provenance of a Tenth-century stone sculpture of the god Hanuman that resulted in its switch to the Kingdom of Cambodia in 2015. Extra just lately, Mace labored intently with the Nationwide Museum of Cambodia to curate a multimedia presentation that includes a larger-than-life stone sculpture of Krishna that had survived solely in fragments.

“There must be a well-considered dialog about what can occur sooner or later, as a result of a lot occurred previously that can’t be modified,” Mace advised me. “How will we perceive a troubled previous so it doesn’t occur once more? I attempted to do that with the Krishna exhibition, to indicate how advanced and ambivalent the historical past of a single object might be. For the works which can be in our care, let’s have a look at them one after the other, inform their tales, and attempt to attain out to international locations of origin. We want an open strategy to speaking about what’s greatest for the sculptures.”

In 2021, Nancy Wiener accepted a plea discount in change for offering details about smuggling networks engaged by herself and her mom. This data, in flip, led to the seizure of Mom Goddess (Matrika).

Within the months earlier than the Manhattan DA’s workplace started its investigation, Oberlin Faculty’s Asian artwork curator, Kevin Greenwood, and museum director, Andria Derstine, consented to fulfill with me regarding my analysis into the Tanesar sculptures. (Derstine later declined to talk, as soon as the investigation commenced.) Different establishments have been much less forthcoming. Officers at LACMA and the Met ignored or rejected my a number of makes an attempt to debate the Tanesar sculptures of their collections. The Met, furthermore, left up misguided web site content material regarding the sculptures even after I introduced up revealed sources that might have helped appropriate the errors.

By 1967, at the least six of the unique Tanesar artworks had traveled throughout two oceans and reached Wiener’s New York gallery. Wiener typically known as them “black stone matrikas.” In March 1968, she wrote to Lee, “Mr. & Mrs. Rockefeller got here to see the Matrika stones, and might be in contact with me otherwise you, relating to their selection. At the moment, as per our dialog, we are going to ship the opposite to you.”

Doris Wiener died in 2011. In 2016, she was posthumously named in a Manhattan legal court docket criticism for conspiracy to “purchase, smuggle, launder, and promote thousands and thousands of {dollars}’ value of antiquities stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan, and Thailand.” The criticism acknowledged that she and her daughter, Nancy Wiener, together with others, had “trafficked in unlawful antiquities for many years.” In 2021, Nancy Wiener accepted a plea discount in change for offering details about smuggling networks engaged by herself and her mom. This data, in flip, contributed to the DA’s investigation of the Tanesar sculptures that led to the seizure of Mom Goddess (Matrika) on the Met within the fall of 2022.

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The criticism and plea discount named two smuggling rings working in India supported by the Wiener household enterprise and run by sellers named Om Sharma and Sharod Singh. And though the DA’s workplace wouldn’t affirm the title, a recognized intermediary needed to have related the dacoits who looted the Tanesar temple within the early Nineteen Sixties to Doris Wiener.

Much less a spotlight of the DA’s criticism had been the fluid social ties connecting the Wiener household with the world of museum administrators and benefactors. “I’ve just lately returned from an prolonged journey to India,” Wiener wrote chummily to Lee in Might 1967. “My actions there, in addition to listening to large quantities of gossip and shop-talk, was to amass a advantageous assortment of Indian miniature work and a really advantageous Persian manuscript which simply arrived. I’d be happy to see you once more whenever you come to New York.”

Over time, Wiener’s gallery moved to Fifth Avenue, in a constructing going through the steps of the Met. A business-meets-pleasure lack of boundaries characterised the trade. “As standard, the supplier is aware of greater than the curator,” Lee wrote to the collector Robert H. Ellsworth in 1966.

Lee had grow to be conscious of the Tanesar sculptures’ existence as early as November 1961. That’s when Ratna Chandra Agrawala mailed Lee a file containing a dozen of his personal latest articles that greater than seemingly included the 2 in Lalit Kala discussing the sculptures. “It’s hoped,” Agrawala wrote, “that [the papers] might be of some curiosity to you. … I shall additionally look ahead to your go to to Rajasthan within the close to future.” Whether or not or not the 1959 and 1961 articles had been included within the batch, Lee had the 1961 article in his possession whereas discussing with Wiener the sale of a number of of the sculptures.

In September 1967, Lee wrote to a advisor, Vinod P. Dwivedi, on the Nationwide Museum of Delhi a couple of battle. He was significantly contemplating the acquisition of a Tanesar matrika on supply from Wiener:

One factor specifically has come up which I need to ask you about and depend upon your confidence and discretion. I don’t want to be concerned in any means within the acquisition of any materials which has been ‘illegally acquired.’ Please observe, I don’t say ‘illegally exported,’ however ‘illegally acquired.’

Within the No. 10 concern of Lalite Kala, October, 1961, pages 31-33, there may be an article by R. C. Agrawala which incorporates illustrations of 9 sculptures from Tavesara, described as ‘Underneath Worship.’

I’m knowledgeable that these items are actually in america, within the arms of a supplier. Has there been any report or details about these items being stolen or in some other means illegally acquired? Did the village promote the items?

Dwivedi, after chatting with Agrawala, responded that there was no report of a theft from “Tavesara” however that “the villagers by no means promote any picture below worship.”

In Might 1968, when the sale was near remaining, Lee lastly requested Wiener in regards to the matter instantly: The “solely query is whether or not the piece was initially offered from the village or whether or not it was stolen. What sort of assure of title are you able to present … ?”

By 1970, Lee had acquired the Tanesar sculpture for his museum’s assortment, paying $10,500. (It’s potential that extra sculptures had been supplied and thought of.) Quickly after, the Cleveland museum mailed an 8-by-10 shiny of the acquisition to Oberlin Faculty for publication in its Bulletin. That Lee knew the sculpture’s origin story is clear from the picture, which bears the label “from Tamesara-Mahdeva,  (ca. 30 miles from Vdaipur).”

How did Wiener reach putting the sculptures with curators and collectors on the highest echelon of American society? A lot of the collectors had shut connections to Pratapaditya Pal, creator of the 1971 article within the Allen Museum Bulletin. Born in East Bengal and raised in Calcutta, Pal is now 87. His scholarly works are intensive, and he has served as curator of South Asian artwork at a number of the best museums in America—in Chicago and Boston, in addition to Los Angeles. He additionally knew everybody within the artwork world, and he did a lot of his work in an age of schmoozing and lengthy lunches at French eating places.

The matrika on the British Museum was retrieved from storage, permitting the creator to really feel its “extraordinary leadlike heft.” (Courtesy of the creator)

In his writings, Pal mentions his friendships with not solely Wiener but additionally Paul Walter and Nasli Heeramaneck, then a revered collector in New York. Heeramaneck owned three Tanesar sculptures at one time or one other. One other shut buddy, and one in every of Pal’s advisees, was Christian Humann, a prolific collector who handed away in 1981. The primary blockbuster touring exhibit of Asian statuary—“Sensuous Immortals,” curated by Pal—was made up of Humann’s bronze and stone artworks. Among the many treasures of the present was Mom Goddess (Matrika)—the Tanesar goddess seized from the Met final 12 months. “Sensuous Immortals” traveled to 5 North American cities between 1977 and 1979, typically crossing paths with one other blockbuster touring museum exhibition, one which defied all earlier expectations for artwork world profitability and bore the taint of theft—the “Treasures of Tutankhamun.” The American museum as an establishment had entered a brand new period of commercialism. If exactly naming the origin website of a set of extremely valued artworks would have solid doubt on good title, and due to this fact undercut profitability, it’s no marvel that such a element would have been left off, that sure errors in a journal article would go uncorrected. In artwork world circles, the imprimatur of getting as soon as been displayed in “Sensuous Immortals” typically stands in for an object’s respectability. And but, Mom Goddess (Matrika) will not be the one sculpture from the present, or from Humann’s “Pan-Asian assortment,” to have been tainted by questions of provenance. One other is the Tenth-century stone Hanuman transferred to Cambodia from the Cleveland Museum of Artwork in 2015. But a 3rd is the Eleventh-century Celestial Lady Beneath a Mango Tree, which was on view on the Denver Artwork Museum from 1965 till 2019. This determine was matched to images taken at a temple in central Rajasthan in 1960 and revealed on the web site Plundered Previous. After being confronted with the data, the Denver museum quietly returned the sculpture to India—with none public point out of the switch. A fourth is the bronze Hanuman Conversing from the Eleventh century, at present on view on the Met. Simply this previous December, researchers in Puducherry, India, linked it to a theft someday round 1960, utilizing pictures archived on the metropolis’s French Institute.

Connecting an object to its unique website is vital for 2 causes. Doing so preserves the integrity of its artwork historic document, and illuminates and evaluates the legality and morality of its elimination. Neither of those issues appears to have preoccupied Pal. “Luckily,” Pal wrote in 2021 in a fond memory of “Sensuous Immortals,” “within the Nineteen Seventies, there have been no ‘provenance points’ that might grow to be such a headache for museum professionals and collectors by the final decade of the century.”

This, nonetheless, is one other fairy story. “Sensuous Immortals,” in any case, concluded only one 12 months earlier than the publication of International Devils on the Silk Street, the British journalist and historian Peter Hopkirk’s exposé on the pillaging of Central Asian Buddhist artwork by explorers working for colonial powers on the flip of the Twentieth century. He describes a case through which the British-Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein, exploring Buddhist websites within the Taklamakan Desert within the early 1900s, “used a noticed, rigorously inserted behind the frescoes,” and had work “minimize into items, later to be rigorously reunited after their lengthy and arduous journey dwelling by camel, pony, yak or different means.” The majority of this cache is now in storage on the British Museum. Hopkirk requested his readers to evaluate for themselves “the morality of depriving a individuals completely of their heritage.”

Two years after the publication of Hopkirk’s guide, in 1982, the artwork historian Joanna Gottfried Williams declined to incorporate Indian sculptures held in American museums or collections for her landmark historical past The Artwork of Gupta India: Empire and Province. Though her argument centered on the necessity for artwork historic context, her feedback bore the whiff of condemnation. She fingered a textual content by Pal particularly for its “deliberate inclusion of works with out the unimpeachable credentials of these recorded in situ in India.”

This hybrid determine at present resides on the Taneshwar temple—the sculpture’s torso is historical, however its head dates to a later interval. (Courtesy of the creator)

Not way back, I reached Pal on the telephone, although he didn’t have a lot to say in regards to the Tanesar artworks past what he has beforehand written. “If that is one other query of repatriation and all this, I don’t have time to debate it proper now,” he mentioned, suggesting that I write to him in regards to the matter. He did, nonetheless, say that in his view, the gross sales of the artworks needs to be thought of within the context of the ratification date of the UNESCO conference to curtail worldwide black marketeering in antiquities. “If works had been acquired earlier than 1970,” he advised me, “so far as I’m involved, these gross sales are completely kosher.” He didn’t wish to converse in regards to the bigger topic of the Tanesar sculptures’ export, which is a disgrace, as a result of the story he may inform in regards to the world of Twentieth-century amassing and museums could be illuminating, to say the least.

At this time, the shortsightedness of the previous is commonly invoked to contextualize the open secret of museum-bound loot within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s. Nancy Wiener, in her 2021 plea discount, described “a market the place shopping for and promoting antiquities with imprecise and even no provenance was the norm. Obfuscation and silence had been accepted responses to questions regarding the supply from which an object had been obtained. In brief, it was a conspiracy of the prepared.” Wiener’s passive language properly insulates museum administrators from participation in that conspiracy.

This world of make-believe and false information, the place the notion that nobody would discover or care if the title of a city was fallacious, jogged my memory of the condescending observe of sculpture substitute. This can be a trick utilized by temple looters. They steal a useful devotional sculpture after which deposit an inexpensive pretend or a more moderen, much less useful object as an alternative. Then, worshippers have one thing to propitiate, and the looters—and others—get wealthy.

On the Taneshwar temple on my first go to, villagers confirmed me a statue that some worshippers believed to be a substitute. Its physique was coated in pink mesh cloth bordered with gold. Foil, ash, and vermilion stained its uncovered limbs and face. Solely the top was seen. On a later go to, although, I noticed that the sculpture’s torso was certainly historical. The newer head had been balanced, off kilter, on prime of the physique. This goddess was an exquisite Frankenstein. Embodying outdated and new, the determine had grow to be an object of worship by itself phrases.

There was an odd, uncooked energy on this indigenous, residing art work. I’d felt one thing comparable in my pilgrimage throughout three continents—North America, Europe, and Asia—to put eyes on and even contact as many sculptures from the set as potential. I used to be in a position to really feel the extraordinary leadlike heft of the goddess on the British Museum. After I submitted a analysis request, an attendant retrieved this matrika from storage, bringing her to me in a wood cart labeled oriental. On the Allen Museum at Oberlin, after the same analysis request, the curator introduced Deva out of storage and rotated him on a lazy Susan–type pedestal. We watched, enraptured, as the gorgeous blue-green stone caught the sunshine in several methods whereas the determine spun. And on the Met and in Cleveland, I noticed the sculptures below exactly organized decorator’s bulbs, which confirmed off their elegant, otherworldly options, but additionally their maternal air of data and contentment.

The day I noticed the old-new goddess, I used to be equally moved. I stood within the alcove and imagined how this place may vibrate ought to the spirits of the unique Taneshwar goddesses be part of this contemporary, vernacular goddess. Elegant artwork celebrates and simulates the richness and density of life, and all of those goddesses have completed simply that. The previous was unrecoverable, however maybe one thing extra highly effective would quickly come to be. I questioned what it could be prefer to really feel the energies of the goddesses coalesce in a single place as they hadn’t in additional than 60 years. I envisioned a land the place gods and goddesses had been returned dwelling regardless of the mammoth forces of commerce, status, and energy. I questioned if my fantasy may at some point grow to be actual.

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