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Stolen 10th century sculpture repatriated to India after years at the Ackland

Unidentified Artist Eastern India, Bengal, Pala Dynasty, 10th century Manjusri, c. 10th century phyllite 33 3/8 x 20 1/4 x 8 11/16 in. (84.7 x 51.4 x 22 cm) Photo courtesy of The Ackland Art Museum.

After eight years on display at the Ackland Art Museum, the Manjusri, a stolen 10th Century Buddhist sculpture, was returned to the Indian government in September. 

The state Supreme Court of New York sent a court order to the Ackland on Aug. 14, requiring that the museum provide the Manjusri to the New York County District Attorney’s Office within 10 days. 

Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Ackland, submitted a proposal on Aug. 18, requesting that the museum and University deaccession the work of art. Both Chancellor Carol Folt and David Routh, chief executive of the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation, agreed to the proposal for deaccessioning after receiving a letter from museum director Katie Ziglar on Aug. 21. 

"Best wishes as you work to ensure that the Ackland's collection only holds works to which it has good title," Folt wrote in an email to Ziglar. 

The Manjusri was one of 51 pieces donated to the Ackland in 2010 by the Tyche Foundation, which no longer exists. The piece was given an insurance value of $275,000 at the time of donation. 

Nisbet wrote in his proposal that the Manjusri was stolen from its site in India no later than April of 1989. According to Himalayan Art Resources, the statue's past residence was a temple in Bihar, India. 

“The UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation and Ackland were unknowing victims in this case and, in fact, were surely not the only ones as it relates to the piece,” Nisbet said in an email to the DTH. 

Nisbet said the sculpture had many owners before its donation to the UNC-CH Foundation. 

Daniel Sherman, a professor of art history, said he thinks it is a museum’s responsibility to attempt to ensure that the person selling or gifting a work to them has legal title to it. He said museums should not display work if they are not sure it has been acquired legitimately.

“I think that museums have gotten very careful about that, so I think the number of museums knowingly exhibiting stolen work has probably declined somewhat,” Sherman said. “But there are still many who do so, and there are many who I think are not as careful about it as they should be.” 

The Ackland abides by the Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines for antiquities, which require that member museums thoroughly research the ownership history of a piece before acquiring it. AAMD guidelines allow, however, for acquisition of works that lack a complete documented ownership history if they meet certain guidelines and the museum posts a photo of the work and explanation of the circumstances on the AAMD image registry. 

AAMD guidelines read: “... The museum must carefully balance the possible financial and reputational harm of acquiring the Work against the benefit of collecting, presenting, and preserving the Work in trust for the educational benefit of present and future generations.” 

Nisbet said the Ackland is committed to ensuring that it has legal title to the works it displays by conducting its own research where possible, as well as publishing its collection in books and online so outside parties can identify if works are stolen. 

“The past 10 or 20 years have seen greatly heightened attention to questions of stolen and looted art across the entire museum landscape and the Ackland shares the common obligation to enhanced vigilance in this matter,” Nisbet said in an email to the DTH. 

Sherman said museums have become more careful about exhibiting stolen art in recent years, making the removal and returning of art relatively common. He said some countries and geographical areas are more likely to fall victim to art theft due to conflict and lack of resources, while wealthier “recipient countries,” such as the U.S., are more likely to have stolen art. 

“(Art repatriation) is incumbent on us both legally and morally,” Sherman said. “I’m afraid that in terms of the U.S. setting an example for the world, that ship has sailed probably a long time ago, but certainly in many instances. Let’s just not go there. But I think it’s important both in terms of the way of our foreign relations and for cultural diplomacy in particular.”

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