A 17th-century statue of the goddess Vasudhara from Nepal, displayed at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt. Western publications and collections of Himalayan cultural artefacts often present little information on their original context or provenance, masking how these objects may have been acquired by less than ethical means. Photo: IMAGO / epd
A 17th-century statue of the goddess Vasudhara from Nepal, displayed at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt. Western publications and collections of Himalayan cultural artefacts often present little information on their original context or provenance, masking how these objects may have been acquired by less than ethical means. Photo: IMAGO / epd

The real secrets around Himalayan art surround those who collect it

Two publications offer a window into the workings of Himalayan art collections in the West – where the buyers and sellers are more mysterious than the esoteric artefacts they trade in

Erin L Thompson (www.artcrimeprof.com) is a professor of art crime at John Jay College (City University of New York). She studies the damage done to cultural heritage and communities through the looting, theft and deliberate destruction of art, as well as its deliberate preservation. She is a member of the advisory committee for the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

Other people’s secrets are especially interesting. Their content hardly matters. Rather, the draw is the feeling of power that comes from knowing something that someone else did not want us to know. You hold the key, even if you have no interest in going through the door it unlocks. At least, this is how I understand the appeal of Tantric Buddhist and Hindu artefacts to many Western collectors. These artefacts are esoteric: meant to be interpreted one way by most people, but in a very different way by initiates who can read their hidden meanings. For example, you may see a yab-yum image as a merely erotic representation of sexual intercourse unless you know it symbolises the union of action and wisdom necessary to achieve enlightenment. 

Once, these interpretations were passed down from teachers to students within religious traditions. Now, they have been revealed by a century of published scholarship. Still, mystery continues to surround the esoteric artefacts of Himalayan cultures. But today, the secrets have to do not with the artefacts themselves, but with those who buy and sell them. In this review, I offer myself as a guide to the hidden meanings of two characteristic publications in the field, one a survey of Himalayan art and the other a catalogue of an American private collection.

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