2 more Nepali antiquities traced to US museum

Nepali and international activists have begun the process of repatriating this 700-year-old wooden carving of a flying gandharva (divine singer) which was stolen from Itum Bahal in Kathmandu in the 1980s, and is now in the collection of The Rubin Museum of Art in New York. Photo: THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART

As the return by Western museums and private collectors of Nepal’s stolen antiquities gathers pace, two more religious objects from Kathmandu Valley shrines have been located at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

The wooden artefacts between 400-700 years old were tracked down at The Rubin by the group Lost Arts of Nepal which has been investigating sacred objects so that they can be returned to the shrines from where they were stolen in Kathmandu.

One of the items is a 14th century carved wooden architectural element of a flying gandharva (divine singer) that was stolen from Itum Bahal in the 1980s. The other is a wooden torana (frieze) that is 500 years old and was wrenched out of a doorway in I Bahi in Patan.

Also at the Rubin Museum of Art’s collection is this 17th century wooden frieze stolen from I Baha in Patan. Photo: THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART

Both objects are exquisite examples of Newa devotional art and photographs in art and architecture publications in the 1970s of the objects in situ in Kathmandu shrines prove their provenance. It is not known who stole them, and how they came to be in possession of The Rubin, which has now been withdrawn from view.

Announcement about the two objects was made at the official launch on Friday at the Patan Museum of The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign by Lalitpur Mayor Chiribabu Maharjan. The Campaign aims to work for the return of sacred objects to the temples and monuments from where they were stolen, or to museums in Nepal. 

The Campaign has informed the Nepal consulate in New York about the objects in possession of The Rubin, and says it will start working immediately to facilitate the restitution of these and other antiquities. 

Lost Arts of Nepal is based in the US and has tracked down numerous other stolen Nepali antiquities, some of which have already been returned or handed over to Nepali authorities.

Just last week, a 10th century stone figure of Uma Maheswar, stolen from Gaa Hiti in Patan 50 years ago was handed over to the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC by the Denver Art Museum.

In the past year, six stolen stone and bronze sacred statuary have been handed back to Nepal. They include the 12th-century Laxmi-Narayan statue from Patko Tole in Patan returned by the Dallas Museum of Art, a 13th century carved wooden Apsara from a temple eave, and a 700 year old Buddha. 

A 15th century Ganesh was also recently returned by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and a 13th century Shivalinga stolen from Kathmandu was returned to the Nepal Embassy in Washington by the Art Institute of Chicago.

These objects are temporarily stored at the Patan Museum or National Museum in Chhauni before being returned and consecrated at their original shrines.

“We are committed to restore the sacred statues that have been returned to the temples from which they were stolen,” Mayor Maharjan said at the launch of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

The Campaign’s patron is historian Satyamohan Joshi and is chaired by Riddhi Baba Pradhan, former Director General of the Department of Archaeology. Other members include Dilendra Shrestha of Patan Museum, lawyer Sanjay Adhikari, Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, Roshan Mishra of Taragaon Museum and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit. 

Members of the newly formed Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign pose after the launch at Patan Museum on 17 September. Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

The anonymous investigator of the Lost Arts of Nepal is in the Advisory Council with other international art restitution activists, including Art Crime professor at the City University of New York Erin L Thompson. 

After news broke of the gandharva and torana at The Rubin, Thompson tweeted on 17 September: ‘What do you say, Rubin Museum - will you join the Denver Art Museum and Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in repatriating stolen sacred artwork from Nepal?’ 

,The Rubin Museum of Art was founded by Shelley and Donald Rubin who began collecting Himalayan 'art' in the 1970s, and has as its main mission, ‘inspiring personal connections to the ideas, cultures, and art of Himalayan regions’.

After the 2015 earthquake, The Rubin held a special exhibition of some of the  Nepali antiquities in its collection, including a gilded Durga statue from the 13th century, of which the museum says it is confident about its provenance. Last week on Ganesh Chaturthi, it highlighted a copper alloy Ganesha figure from Nepal in its collection.

An Al Jazeera investigation in 2018 of sacred antiquities stolen from Mustang titled ‘The Great Plunder’ led to police raids and probes of antique shops in Kathmandu and museums. 

In a statement at the time, The Rubin said that it ‘vehemently opposes the trafficking of stolen or looted cultural items and does not acquire any material known or suspected to be stolen or looted’.  

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign is chasing up 15 other stolen Nepali antiquities in the possession of collectors and museums in the US, UK, Australia, Germany, France and other countries. It has started work on investigating the provenance of the stolen objects to provide proof for their repatriation to Nepal.

The District Attorney Office in Manhattan has been involved in an investigation of a $143 million antiquities smuggling ring that stole and sold artefacts from Nepal, India, Cambodia, Thailand and other countries. It seized some of them from the collection of art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who was arrested in 2012. 

Statement from the Rubin Museum of Art in response to this report.

In July, the DA’s office arraigned 58-year-old British art restorer Neil Perry Smith after extraditing him from Britain. He is accused of preparing 22 stolen antiquities valued at $32 million for sale to Kapoor’s clients at his gallery, Art of the Past. Some of those objects were from Nepal, the indictment says.