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The Portland Ganesha

17 February, 2009 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, medieval, south asia | By: xensen

Portland Art Museum Ganesha

Yesterday the Portland Art Museum unveiled a recent purchase: an eleventh-century stone Ganesha from northeastern India.

The Portland Ganesha is shown seated in the posture of “royal ease,” with one knee raised. His rat mount looks up from below, a wisdom bearer (vidyadhara) reaches down from above with a garland of flowers. One of Ganesha’s hands is held in the gesture of reassurance, while the others hold various objects.

How was this object removed from India? No one seems sure.

In the museum world the date 1970 is a significant one. In that year the United Nations adopted measures intended to prevent the looting of antiquities. So objects whose provenance is murky prior to 1970 may be points of contention. The museum bought this work at a Christie’s auction in 2008; in 2000 it had been sold by Sotheby’s. But there seems to be no explanation how Sotheby’s came by the object, as Sotheby’s says its documentation is “missing.”

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, when a work is acquired despite doubts about its provenance, it is supposed to be listed in an object registry on the AAMD’s website. The registry is intended to provide a mechanism for anyone with a claim to ownership of the work to examine the evidence and come forward. This Ganesha is historic in that it is the first such work to be placed on that list.

Was the sculpture obtained legally, or was it stolen? Why is there no existing record of a sale? Under these circumstances is it appropriate for a Western museum to purchase and display such a work? Does going public and listing the object on the registry make a difference? What will happen if a claimant appears?

These are the kinds of questions that will play out in coming years.


Ganesha, 11th c. Northeastern India, Pala dynasty (mid-8th-12th century). Stone.