The two relics from the museum’s collection that are being returned to Nepal are believed to have been taken from religious sites by smugglers.
By Zachary Small (published 10 January 2022)
The Rubin Museum of Art announced on Monday that it would return two sculptures to Nepal after researchers working for the museum concluded that smugglers had stolen the carved wooden artifacts from religious sites.
“We are deeply grateful,” Nepal’s acting consul general, Bishnu Prasad Gautam, said in a statement. “The proactive response and thoughtful collaboration from the Rubin have positively contributed to Nepal’s national efforts to recover the lost artifacts.”
The museum credited a nonprofit called the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign for playing a role in the repatriation by calling attention to questions about the history of the items. In September, a Twitter account affiliated with the recovery campaign had posted concerns that the wooden relics had been stolen
The Rubin Museum said in its statement that these two relics were the first items in its collection that were found to have been unlawfully obtained. The institution is currently five years into a full review of its artifacts, which involves filling gaps in knowledge about provenance records.
“We have an ongoing duty to carefully research the art and objects we collect and exhibit. The theft of archaeological objects continues to be a major concern in the art world,” Jorrit Britschgi, the museum’s executive director, said in the statement. “We believe it is our responsibility to address and resolve issues of cultural property, including helping to facilitate the return of the two objects in question.”
One relic is the upper section of a 17th-century wooden torana (an ornamental gateway in Buddhist and Hindu architecture) from a temple complex in Patan called the Yampi Mahavihara. Another is a carving of a garland-bearing apsara (a female spirit of the clouds and waters) from the 14th century, which was originally part of an ornamental window decoration in the Itum Bahal monastery of Kathmandu.
Scholars working for the museum found that the garland went missing from the monastery in 1999, four years before it was purchased by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Cultural Trust, which represents the Rubin Museum’s founders. Sandrine Milet, a spokeswoman for the museum, said the two artifacts were purchased in private sales but declined to name the dealers, saying they wished to remain anonymous.
Nepal’s Department of Archaeology will determine if the objects go back to their original sites or to a national museum. In December, government officials returned a sculpture representing the Hindu goddess Lakshmi-Narayan to its temple pedestal in Patan after the Dallas Museum of Art returned it. During a celebratory procession, attendees reached up to touch the artifact, which is considered a living god, bringing their fingers to their foreheads to communicate a blessing.
Roshan Mishra, director of the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, hopes that a similar ceremony will greet the objects returning from the Rubin Museum. He helped the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign publicize the efforts to secure the return of the wooden relics.
“I am so happy,” Mishra said in an interview. “If museums like the Rubin are actively repatriating their artifacts, I think it will be easier for other museums to follow their lead.”
Zachary Small is a reporter who covers the dynamics of power and privilege in the art world. They have written for The Times since 2019. @zacharyhsmall