More on Bangladesh and the Mus ée Guimet

Tony K. Stewart tony_stewart at NCSU.EDU
Tue Jan 15 00:02:01 UTC 2008

Dear Colleagues:

Having just returned from Dhaka a few weeks ago and knowing a number  
of the litigants involved, I can add to what Matthew has relayed.   
There is a somewhat more complicated legal history here than is at  
first evident.  As I understand it, a group of contemporary artists  
had heard--on what they believed to be unassailably reliable  
authority--that the Musée Guimet had returned forgeries after a major  
exhibition of South Asian art a few years ago.  Consequently, these  
artists enlisted the services of Supreme Court barrister  and  
television analyst/personality Tania Amir to file a writ petition with  
the courts to block the loan of all articles for the exhibition out of  
fear that they would be pirated.  The artists were deeply upset and  
quite passionate about the move they made--at least judging from my  
limited conversations with several of the key figures and with Ms  
Amir.  The number of artists behind this was not small.  Those  
supporting the loan were also prominent and were quite surprised at  
the allegations--but at least some seemed to take them seriously as (I  
was informed by one proponent directly involved and who was initially  
quite disturbed by the argument).  The (caretaker) government then  
reviewed the matter, the courts chose not to issue the writ, and  
pieces already on their way continued their journey with a certain  
amount of publicity for those to follow.

As Matthew rightly points out, speculation abounds; but as I was  
leaving Dhaka, there seemed to be a growing consensus that the  
publicity itself may have focused unwanted attention on the location  
of the artifacts and the "looting" was as likely motivated by greed as  
by politics:  these were after all, and according to all public  
reports, "priceless".  That some may have attempted to manipulate this  
for political advantage is certainly within the realm of the  
Bangladeshi politics as elsewhere; but the more benign interpretations  
are certainly as plausible as the political infighting that has been  
suggested.  Until the bungling culprits are tried, the entire episode  
remains shrouded.

The bottom line, however, is unfortunate:  the exhibition has had to  
be abandoned, and the precedent for all museums is ominous (I  
discussed the issue at some length with one curator in the Asia  
Collection in the British Museum last week and there is a palpable  
apprehension).  It is also very unfortunate that the catalogue is  
likely not to circulate--a most important reminder for our library  
collection specialists.

Let's hope this is resolved in such a way that other exhibits are not  

Tony K Stewart
Professor of South Asian Religions & Literatures
North Carolina State University
Director, Bangla Language Programs
American Institute of Bangladesh Studies

On Jan 14, 2008, at 1:34 PM, mkapstei at UCHICAGO.EDU wrote:

> The exhibition entitled "Chef-d'oeuvre du Delta du Gange:
> Collections des musées de Bangladesh," which was
> scheduled to open at the Musée Guimet in Paris late last
> year, was abruptly cancelled owing to the purported
> theft of two statues in the holding area of the Dakka
> airport. This led one faction of the Bangladesh government
> to accuse those responsible for negotiating the exhibition
> with the French of having endangered the national
> patrimony, leading then to the cancellation. The objects
> were, in fact, soon recovered (causing some to suspect
> that their "theft" had been cooked with the sole interest
> of embarrassing political rivals and scuppering the
> exhibition), and, indeed, most materials had already
> arrived in Paris, when Bangladesh demanded their
> immediate return.
> The catalogue, edited by Vincent Lefevre, and bearing the
> same title as the exhibition, offers an excellent
> introduction to and survery of the archeology and antiquities
> of Bangladesh, and is particularly good on Buddhist
> sites and art (with much from the Pala period). It will
> no doubt be remaindered shortly, as museum catalogues
> generally do not sell well except in the context of
> the exhibitions they were meant to accompany. In this case,
> the wealth of the objects depicted leads one to regret
> very much that the show could not go on.
> Matthew T. Kapstein
> Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies
> The University of Chicago Divinity School
> Directeur d'études
> Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris

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