Baker in the Palace with the Statuette

Was a famous American scholar and self–styled curator up to no good in Nepal, or is he just a scapegoat for all wealthy expats?

Joshua Hammer

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FOR ANYONE THINKING ABOUT moving to Nepal to live the dream life of an academic/explorer, now might be a good time to reconsider. On May 17, a team of Kathmandu police swept through a royal palace turned residence in the city’s affluent Naxal neighborhood, where the American adventurer Ian Baker had lived for 14 years. They seized more than a hundred items, including Tibetan scroll paintings, old wooden statuettes, a tiger–skin meditation seat, and tanned pelts from an endangered red panda, a tiger, and a leopard. Baker, 50, was charged with possession of antiquities and endangered–animal hides. Although he was in Bangkok, on his way back to Nepal from a U.S. lecture tour, his gardener was home and was taken into custody.

The curious thing is that Baker, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and perhaps the most prominent figure in the Nepalese capital’s thriving expat community, has openly displayed this stuff in his home for years. The raid supposedly was spurred by an anonymous tip, but it came just 11 days before a new, democratically elected Maoist government took power, abolished the monarchy, and forced King Gyanendra to vacate the Kathmandu palace.

For these and other reasons, Baker is pointing a finger right back at the government,arguing that he was target=ed by bureaucrats from the ousted monarchy who are trying to grab what they can before they lose their posts. He says he can explain where he got each of the seized items, and he insists that all of what he had is legal.

“The whole Kathmandu Valley would be under arrest if this were a legitimate case,” says Baker, who’s been staying with friends at an undisclosed location in the United States since the raid. “I’ve got one friend with two stuffed tigers, another with leopard heads on his walls. I don’t know a single foreigner who doesn’t have something over one hundred years old.”

Baker, a graduate of Middlebury and Oxford, first arrived in Nepal in 1977 to study Tibetan scroll painting as a college junior. Later, after earning a master’s in English literature at Oxford, he established himself as an expert in Himalayan culture. In the eighties, he settled in Kathmandu and began leading expeditions to the Pemako region of Tibet, writing about his experiences for National Geographic. In 2004 his career reached a zenith with the publication of The Heart of the World, a lyrical account of his exploration of the remote Tsangpo Gorge and of his discovery of a 108–foot–high waterfall believed by Tibetans to be the gateway to a mystical sanctuary and the origin of the myth of Shangri–La.

During the early part of Baker’s career, Nepal’s ancient Himalayan culture was still relatively unexplored by Westerners. There were few local museums or established methods for the preservation of ancient artifacts. In many cases, Baker says, he took possession of objects to prevent them from being destroyed. In the process, he and other expat scholars?became the de facto curators of large personal collections. Several of Baker’s rare pelts, for example, came from a palace he’d lived in earlier.

“They were going to tear the place down,” says Baker. “They said, ‘Take these things with you.’ The skins are part of the emblems of royalty, part of the territory. You see this great legacy of culture and wildlife just being allowed to rot, to go to waste. I was trying to prevent that.”

Other artifacts from historic buildings are still available in Kathmandu’s street markets. “Kathmandu is an open–air museum. There are windows and doors out on the streets going to waste,” says Baker. Several of the frames and doors that he kept in his house were among the objects seized by the police.

Some of the charges against Baker appear to have been overblown. Under the provisions of Nepal’s 1973 National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, people who possess old animal skins and other animal parts must register them with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. “Many houses have these skins of pandas and tigers,” says Hemanta Mishra, a conservationist who helped draft the law. “Basically, as long as people didn’t deal or trade or barter, the law was not really enforced.” As for the antiquities, the Nepalese government gives out licenses for the purchase and sale of some old objects. Baker’s Kathmandu attorney, Janu Shrestha, says he’s in the process of rounding up the proper documentation for the collection.

Nevertheless, Nepalese officials appear serious about pursuing a case against Baker. Police superintendent Devendra Subedi, an organizer of the raid, contends that some of the objects found in Baker’s home were stolen from Nepalese temples—a charge that Baker calls “completely false”—and that if Baker returns to Nepal he’ll face immediate arrest and up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. At press time, in July, Baker’s gardener was still in police custody.

Baker won’t be extradited—there’s no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Nepal—and Shrestha sounds optimistic about getting the charges dropped. “I think the worst that will happen is that he will pay a fine because some material he doesn’t have permissions for,” says Shrestha. “But he will be able to come back to Kathmandu, and stay for as long as he likes, and he will get his property back.”

Whatever the true motivation for the raid, one thing seems clear: The upheaval surrounding the changing government has left Westerners vulnerable. “This has triggered a vibration through the expatriate community,” says Adam Friedensohn, an American businessman who has lived in Kathmandu for 18 years. “You serve the country for 20 years, and your reward is a local media feeding frenzy about the evils of foreigners.” As the Maoists move to consolidate their power, hundreds of expatriates in the Kathmandu Valley must be wondering if their own Shangri–Las will also be at risk.

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