In 1982 a major religious and cultural crime occurred in Bhutan when 40 valuable Thangkas were stolen from the 13th century Phajoding monastery in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Bhutan, since that time, has been making efforts to recover these items.
In 2017 the Bhutan Art Restitution and Reclamation Committee (BARRC), formed in 2017 to recover such artifacts, found that two of the Thangkas were being put up for auction in the Bonham Auction house in Hong Kong by October 2017.
The BAARC, which immediately recognized the unmistakable 19th century silk embroidered Thangkha of Ushnishvijaya and the 18th or 19th century large Thangkha of Avalokiteshwara Shadakshari, informed the government and requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to intervene.
Bonham had estimated that the auction value of the Thangkha of Ushnishvijaya is USD 51,129 to USD 76,693 and the Thangkha of Avalokiteshwara Shadakshari was worth between USD 153,389 to 191,733.
The MFA on 15th September requested Edward Wilkinson, the Executive Director of Bonhams, in Hong Kong not to sell, move or transfer these items.
This letter from the government resulted in Bonhams withdrawing the items from auction and keeping it with them.
Subsequently, BAARC represented by Tashi Tshering and Edward Wilkinson of Bonhams started corresponding through email to resolve the issue.
It was found that Bonhams was reluctant to share the details of the two clients who had put up the stolen artifacts for sale.
The two clients of Bonham put up enquiries to get ‘compensation’ for the artifacts. Bhutan communicated that it was not appropriate to give cash compensation. Instead, the clients were requested to donate the art items during the opening ceremony of the newly renovated Phajoding Monastery, and that due recognition and other privileges would be extended to them during their visit.
However, the two clients, through Bonhams, asked for a monetary compensation of USD 76,693 for Thangkha of Ushnishvijaya and USD 191,733 for the thangkha of Avalokiteshwara Shadakshari. In other words -the maximum auction valuation.
Bhutan responded that it was not willing to provide such a large compensation but was open to other types of compensation, possibly including some cash and a more balanced approach to valuation.
A major concern was that monetary compensation would set a bad precedent for recovering other national artifacts.
There was no further communication on the matter.
Then on 31st May 2019, the MFA received a letter from a Hong Kong based lawyer named Alan Lam of ‘Yam and Pe Associates’ representing his client Mr. Markbeiter who is the current owner of the Ushnishvijaya Thangkha.
The letter giving a deadline to the government said that Bhutan should formally file a claim through proper channels in Hong Kong on or before 21st June 2019.
The letter says that despite repeated requests of the client, Bonham has not moved the piece since the letter from the RGoB.
The letter says that if the RGoB is not able to file a formal claim or produce explicit evidences to support its allegation on before the date, then the client will accept that the RGoB has no interest in pursuing a claim of ownership and that the client will recover possession of the Thangkha from Bonham.
On the 5th of June 2019 Tashi Tshering met with the MFA and requested the ministry to work with the Jigme Singye Wangchuk Law School to draft an appropriate response.
The government, based on the advice of JSW Law School and other experts, is considering a range of options which range from further negotiations with the client, not giving up its claim and also the final option of litigation.
Given that the two artifacts are stolen national treasures, a follow up on the last auction of the items in the Sotheby’s auction, where it was sold as part of the ‘Jucker collection,’ could give more answers.
One course of action is to ask Sotheby’s if it had any proof of ‘good title’ when the pieces were sold or for that matter if Bonhams has the same.
According to experts there is equal pressure on the client to prove that he is in a possession of a piece by fair means as much as there is pressure on Bhutan to prove it was ill-gotten.
BARRC, since 2017, has managed to recover three national artifacts from outside and give it to the respective monasteries.
When The Bhutanese got in touch with Bonham house over the phone, the reporter was asked to send in a written email with questions but despite doing so along with an additional call as a reminder, the auction house failed to respond.
The Bhutanese also contacted lawyer Alan Lam via phone who first proceeded to note down the name of the reporter and the paper.
Alan Lam claimed that his client has ownership papers and proper receipts of the artifact, which his client had purchased in an earlier auction many years ago.
When asked which auction house the artifact was brought from, the lawyer said he can share this information only with the government.
Also when asked on how the Thangkha made it to their earlier auction in the first place and how it reached there, the lawyer declined to share information.
Alan said, “If your government says that the artifact belongs to them or is sovereign property then they should prove it and if they cannot then they should come up with a commercial proposal.”
A court case while being expensive for Bhutan would be equally expensive for the client and a long case with legal fees could even exceed the value of the item, which would anyhow lose monetary value given its now controversial nature.
The lawyer claimed that ample time had been given to the Bhutanese government but they had not done anything.
When asked if his client was planning to take the matter to court the lawyer said that he is not at liberty to discuss their tactics.
But when pressed, the lawyer admitted that the letter to Bonham house was an attempt to seek a resolution to recover the art items without having to go to court.
Phajoding is one of the oldest and most important monasteries of Bhutan and was established by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo who is one of the most important historical and religious figures of Bhutan. He brought Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist teachings to Bhutan which is now institutionalized in the form of the Central Monk Body.
The monastery is also one of the most sacred meditation sites of Bhutan and it high up on the list of Bhutan’s religious, cultural and historical structures and treasures of national importance.
It is also popular among the Bhutanese people and has a place in popular folklore.
Given its importance, the monastery is undergoing extensive renovation.
The monastery and the artifacts in it are all the more important for Bhutan which lives by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness where one of the four pillars is promotion and preservation of culture.
An increasing international smuggling chain and black market, over the decades, has done much damage to Bhutan’s cultural and religious legacy.
Bhutan was particularly hit in the 1980’s when it was not aware of the value of its religious antiques and artifacts and efforts to smuggle them for illegal gain.
The high rates available in the international black market has fueled vandalism and theft in many ancient monasteries and stupas in Bhutan. Even smaller community monasteries and stupas have not been spared.
Such theft leaves a deep scar in a devoutly Buddhist country, both at the community level which associates such theft to be highly inauspicious, and also at the national level for losing such scared religious and cultural items which also hold great historical value.
Just from 2015 to 2019 (till date) there have been 432 such cases of theft of various types of religious and cultural artifacts, reported with the police. These stolen items are invariably smuggled abroad and some of them find themselves in respectable auction houses.