A rare Buddha sculpture from Nepal connected to antiquity looting is set to be auctioned by Christie’s later this week.
The Ninth century bronze sculpture has an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and was previously owned by art collectors James and Marilynn Alsdorf, according to the provenance listed by the auction house. The sculpture has been on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago since 1996.
Much of the works collected by James and Marilynn Alsdorf, who died in 1990 and 2019 respectively, have since been donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. At least four of these objects have links to illegal exportation and looting from Nepal, according to a joint investigation from ProPublica and Crain’s Chicago Business, which also found that nine other works owned by the Alsdorfs have previously been returned to Nepal and other nations.
In 2020, Christie’s also pulled two works owned by the Alsdorfs from from a planned auction, later returning them to Italy, according to the report.
According to the Christie’s listing, the Nepalese Buddha sculpture was acquired by the Aldorfs from William Wolff, a dealer in Asian art who died in 1991. In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Wolff admitted to acquiring artwork through looters in countries such as Nepal, India and Cambodia. “The fellows I bought from knew how to get it out of the country,” said Wolff at the time.
Christie’s declined to discuss details of the work’s history.
“Christie’s devotes considerable resources to investigating the provenance of the works we offer for sale,” said Edward Lewine, a spokesperson for the auction house, in an emailed statement.
A history of repatriations
In 2014, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena California returned a stolen Cambodian statue it purchased from Wolff, while in 2021 the National Gallery of Australia announced plans to repatriate a looted Indian sculpture acquired by the art dealer.
“As someone who tracks the illicit market for antiquities, when you have this many red flags it’s really a sign that you need to stop and think before you sell something,” said Erin Thompson, a professor at John Jay College specializing in art crime.
In addition to questions surrounding its ownership history, the Buddha sculpture additionally shows physical signs of looting, according to Thompson, who viewed the work first-hand at an auction preview on March 17.
The bottom of the sculpture is jagged, indicating it was possibly ripped from its original base, she said. “This is a broken object that still bears the signs of its violent theft.”
Since 1956, Nepal has had a ban protecting culturally significant works from export, said Thompson, adding that while this sculpture bears obvious traces of illicit origins, similar Nepalese works for sale in the U.S. were also likely looted.