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The Seated Buddha Goes Home: Nancy Wiener and National Gallery of Australia Will Return Sculpture to India

NGA Seated Buddha

The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday that its prized second century Seated Buddha would be “donated” to India after the museum struck a deal for its return with Nancy Wiener, the New York gallery owner who sold the statue.

Under the deal, Wiener will reimburse the NGA the $1.080 million paid for the statue in 2007 and arrange for its return to India, the museum said in a statement.

The arrangement marks a rare case of a museum making good on a dealer’s good title guarantee at the time of sale.

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I first raised questions about the Buddha in 2012, after an anonymous source contacted me suggesting the statue’s ownership history had been falsified. After the NGA released documents supporting that claim, the museum contacted the expert who had authenticated the sculpture, Donald Stadtner. Stadtner raised further questions about the sculpture’s origins, claiming in an email to museum officials that British collector Douglas Latchford had boasted in a meeting that he had “found Nancy a provenance” for a related Kushan Buddha that Wiener sold to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum. Through his attorneys, Latchford has denied ever meeting Stadtner.

Douglas LatchfordThe National Gallery of Australia’s release does not resolve the questions about the sculpture’s provenance. “In 2007, the NGA regarded the information available about the sculpture as adequate at the time of its purchase with documented provenance outside India in 1964-66. As a result of new research undertaken by the NGA, particularly in light of the recently published Australian Government Guidelines for Collecting Cultural material, the NGA considers it unclear as to whether the work’s export from India complies with current Australian law. Given the passage of time, the NGA is of the view that further clarification on this issue is unlikely. Accordingly, the NGA and NWG have agreed that the best course is to donate the work to a museum or other cultural institution located in India.”

Nancy WienerWiener, who has not responded to requests for comment, stood behind the story she provided the museum in 2007, the statement said.  “While the [Nancy Wiener Gallery] affirms its confidence in the provenance of the Seated Buddha, it is dedicated to its relationship with the NGA. Therefore, the NWG has offered to refund the purchase price of the sculpture to the NGA, and to join with the NGA in donating the work to an appropriate Indian cultural institution. Both parties are now working collaboratively in the spirit of good will and with Indian officials to determine an appropriate destination in India for this great work.”

The Buddha’s return sets a new standard for Australian museums that goes far beyond any reforms adopted in the United States. Guidelines adopted by Australian museums in the wake of the Subhash Kapoor scandal require objects to have valid export licenses from their country of origin.

If that standard is applied retroactively, as it has been in the case of the Kushan Buddha, many more objects in Australian museums are likely to be sent home.