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400-year-old artefact acquired by the book: Singapore museum

SINGAPORE (CNA) – A nearly 400-year-old religious artefact allegedly stolen from Nepal and tracked down to Singapore recently was acquired in accordance with “established procedures” both local and international, said the museum where the piece is now on display.

On Sunday, an online initiative to recover lost artistic heritage from Nepal announced that a sculpture of a Hindu deity belonging to the Neel Barahi temple – dated 1636 and claimed as stolen in 1999 – had been “located in the collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Singapore”.

The post by the Lost Arts of Nepal Facebook page was picked up by multiple Nepalese media outlets which referred to the four-sided artefact as an “icon of great archaeological importance”.

An ACM spokesperson yesterday told CNA it was aware of the media reports.

“The object in the reports refers to a copper cover of a linga, which was acquired by ACM in 2015 in accordance with the National Heritage Board’s established procedures on acquisition,” he said.

“These procedures include evaluation by ACM’s acquisition committee made up of external experts, as well as rigorous provenance checks carried out at the time of purchase.”

The 17th-Century gold-copper icon from Nepal was acquired by the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2015. PHOTO: CNA

These provenance – or ownership record – checks are also benchmarked against international practices and regularly reviewed, added the spokesperson.

“ACM further notes that the object is not listed in the Art Loss Register,” he said, referring to the world’s largest private database of looted art.

But the administrator of Lost Arts of Nepal – who requested to remain anonymous – told CNA that the 386-year-old artefact was used, along with six others, in the Nepalese town of Pharping, some 20 kilometres south of capital Kathmandu.

The seven feature in an annual, centuries-old festival in Pharping but four of the original pieces have gone missing and have been replaced with replicas since.

The Neel Barahi sculpture was stolen on the night of June 16, 1999, from the house of a caretaker who had been tasked to safe keep it for the year, said the person behind Lost Arts of Nepal.

“We don’t know who stole it but the reason is (likely) increasing demand for Nepalese art and huge financial gains,” the activist added.

The campaigning group said the Neel Barahi would have travelled through various hands before reaching the ACM in Singapore, though its history of ownership is unclear.

In 2019, Lost Arts of Nepal first got wind of the Neel Barahi being in ACM’s collection and subsequently spotted the artefact in the background of a photo of another exhibit.

The group told CNA it has raised the matter to the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, an organisation also working to restitute stolen heritage pieces from the country.

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign will in turn work with the Department of Archaeology within the Nepal government to communicate with Singapore’s ACM “via diplomatic channels”.

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