“The Lost Treasures of Bhutan”? Wall Street Journal




Bhutan Textile Art


It is now a decade since the Wall Street Journal ran articles on the Bartholomew Collection referring to the “Lost Art of Bhutan”, and while such headlines appeared to make good journalistic copy, the fact was, and remains that the headlines were misleading in that these treasures were never lost. The artistic treasures under discussion are a unique collection of over 300 items of exquisite Bhutanese textiles, much of which was formerly owned by the Royal Family of Bhutan. The Collection remains in storage waiting full cataloguing and eventual display. It is currently the property of the Bartholemew family from the USA.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in August 2001, KAREN MAZURKEWICH wrote of the world's greatest collection of textiles from the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, and noted that it was Bartholomew who had first revealed to the world the exceptional beauty of the textiles of Bhutan. To some extent Ms. MAZURKEWICH was writing on trust since what is remarkable about this tale is that the Collection has never been opened to public view. Almost 10 years after the original story the situation is, for the most part unchanged.


It is, of course not unknown for private collectors of a reclusive nature to hoard their collections either because they want no one to share in their good fortune in owning items of rarity or beauty, or because the story of how their collection was amassed would not stand up to public scrutiny. Neither of these situations remotely applies in the case of the Bartholomew Collection. MarkO Bartholemew is a relaxed, outgoing 50 something who wears his heart on his sleeve and has been at the forefront of many campaigns for improvement of the human condition. He is currently working to help secure the removal of unexploded ordnance (bombs, grenades, mines) from the countryside of Laos, where in a bitter legacy of the Vietnam War, hundreds of people are killed or maimed each year by devices largely left by US forces on their secret bombing raids in the 1960s.


Nor are there any issues over the provenance of the Collection, a fact recently confirmed by the Royal Bhutanese Household. Essentially, throughout the 1970s and 1980s members of the Royal Family individually sold off beautiful and valuable items of what might have been seen as a national treasure. If not quite like selling off the UK Crown Jewels, which are the property of the State and not of the ruling monarch, their sale represented a huge cultural and historic loss for this small nation.

They were in part sold to a number of small time collectors but it seems that probably only Bartholomew recognized that they had an importance greatly in excess of their beauty and sale value, and he sought to assemble a collection of the most culturally important items with a view maintaining the integrity of the overall collection and its eventual public display in a coherent manner either in Bhutan itself or elsewhere. But we are talking of events that occurred over a quarter of a century ago. What has happened in the meantime?


The answer is very little. A number of items from the Collection have found their way into major galleries in Asia and the Americas, but for the most part it remains complete, unseen and increasingly at risk from the depredations of modern life. Some of the items are illustrated in Bartholemlew's own book, Thunder Dragon Textiles from Bhutan, Shikosha (Publisher), Kyoto, Japan, which was published to critical acclaim in 1985, but beyond that the Collection remains but a mystery; not hidden from public view, simply not accessible. Any mystery invites speculation and rumour, and in the case of this collection rumour has tended to coalesce around the issues of whether the collection even exists, and whether its most valuable and culturally significant elements have been quietly disposed of over the years. Bartholomew vigorously denies such rumours and is eager to rise to the challenge by displaying the entire collection at the first real opportunity.


Why the mystery?

The Bhutanese authorities were offered The Collection, but perhaps curiously, advised Bartholemew that he should deal with it as he wished without further reference to the State or Royal House of Bhutan. One can only conclude that embarrassment about "selling off the family silver" remains rife in Bhutan and that it is a subject that no one wishes to discuss at the present time. Barthomlew himself simply lacks the resources to catalogue, insure, and display his collection, so it lies today, as 25 years ago, in storage, unloved and unknown.


Currently, in the event of Bartholemew's death it is assumed that the Collection would be sold off piecemeal on the open market by executors eager to maximize the value of the estate, but with concurrent and irredeemable loss of the integrity of the works as an entire collection. To avoid this situation he is now actively seeking a major sponsor who can take over the Collection as a whole and ensure that future generations of scholars and art lovers across the world are able to access and enjoy these remarkable spiritual, cultural and artistic artifacts. Failing that, he faces the prospect of disposing of some small part of the collection in order that the majority of it can be saved and curators, researchers and textile preservationists appointed to safeguard the Collection for the future.


So, this world's greatest collection of textiles is neither lost nor forgotten, merely neglected and in need of a permanent home. It would be tragic if the same situation applied in a further decade's time.