Among the most difficult questions facing the world’s art collectors, museums, and galleries is what to do about stolen or otherwise illegitimately obtained art objects. Ask Marion True, the former curator of antiquities at the Getty, who has been brought up on criminal charges in Rome over her role in acquiring art for the museum that later turned out to be stolen. This Harvard-educated art historian could serve prison time in Italy for things she did while fully employed at one of the world’s best known art museums.
Yet the problem in Greece and Italy is minor when compared to the disastrous looting of sacred art from Nepal. This is the subject of Lost Souls, a documentary by Natalie Sanderson and Sumnima Udas that will be shown at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art tonight. The film, a main festival documentary choice of the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, depicts a complex and highly evolved culture in which art objects embody gods and receive daily devotional attention in the form of prayers, flowers, and other offerings. The religious rituals of Nepalese daily life have, however, been shattered by the removal of approximately 80 percent of their devotional objects by thieves who smuggle them out of the country to be sold on the world market.
Seeing the empty niches in which these images were once venerated and hearing the grief of the believers over the loss of their familiar household gods would make an impressive film all on its own, but Sanderson and Udas have shown remarkable courage in pursuing surreptitiously filmed conversations with an art thief that approach the status of legal evidence. Lost Souls is an enthralling examination of an urgent crisis in the world’s cultural economy and a loving description of an artistically rich religious practice.
Lost Souls will screen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Thursday, August 30, 5:30 p.m. Natalie Sanderson will also answer questions about the film and Nepal.