Rubin to return Nepal antiquities

Two ancient wooden artefacts stolen from Kathmandu’s temples are being sent back by the New York museum

by Nepali Times (published January 11, 2022)

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Bishnu Prasad Gautam, the Acting Consul General (left), and Dr Jorrit Britschgi, the Execute Director of Rubin Museum (right) for the return two wooden art works to Nepal. Photo: CONSULATE GENERAL OF NEPAL.

After increased international spotlight on stolen antiquities, the Rubin Museum in New York is returning two wooden carvings stolen in the 1980s from Kathmandu Valley temples that were in its permanent collection.

Activists had been lobbying for the return of the 14th century flying Apsara/Gandharva stolen from Itum Bahal, and the upper section of the 17th century torana wrenched out of the main doorway of Yampi Mahabihara/I-Bahi in Patan. 

‘As custodians of the art in our collection, the Rubin recognises that we have an ongoing duty to carefully research the art and objects we collect and exhibit … the Rubin’s collecting activities adhere to the highest standards of ethical and professional practice related to provenance,’ said Jorrit Britschgi, Executive Director of Rubin Museum.

Britschgi signed an MoU with Bishnu Prasad Gautam, Acting Consul General of Nepal in New York on 10 January.

The 17th-century wooden Torana Stolen (left) and the 14th-century Flying Gandharva (right) was tracked by the Lost Arts of Nepal in Spetember 2021. Photo: LOST ARTS OF NEPAL.

Gautam said the Consulate and the Rubin Museum will “work closely in the promotion of art and culture” from the Himalaya.

The Rubin has agreed to bear the cost for returning both the objects to Nepal, possibly by April. Until then the objects will remain in the custody of the museum.

The Apsara, originally from Keshchandra Mahabihara, was added to the museum’s collection in 2003, while the torana in 2010. The online group Lost Arts of Nepal had tracked the objects to the museum’s collection and the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign had alerted the Nepali consulate and the museum in September 2021 about the provenance of the two objects, after which Rubin had promptly withdrawn them from public display. 

Rubin said in a statement that the two objects – both extraordinary examples of traditional Newa devotional art – were the first in its collection found to have been unlawfully obtained.

The Consulate General and the Rubin collaborated to verify the origins of the artefacts, and the museum engaged two scholars of Nepali art to examine and research their known provenance. The scholars found that the Gandharva went missing from Itum Bahal in 1999 and was purchased by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Cultural Trust four years later. 

According to Sandrine Millet, a spokesperson for the museum, the two artefacts were purchased in private sales, but she declined to name the dealers. 

The Consulate General and the Rubin Museum officials standing next to the Gandharva and the Torana on Monday. Photo: CONSULATE GENERAL OF NEPAL.

Speaking with the New York Times, Roshan Mishra, the director of Taragaon Museum said, “If museums like the Rubin are actively repatriating their artefacts, I think it will be easier for other museums to follow their lead.”

Once in Nepal, the Department of Archaeology will determine whether the objects will return to their original shrines, or to the National Museum. The Gandharva and the torana are among the 55 artefacts currently in the list of antiquities that the Department is negotiating with museums and collections for repatriation. 

In the past year, six stolen stone and bronze sculptures have been handed back to Nepal, including a 800-year-old Laxmi-Narayan statue from Patko Tole in Patan by the Dallas Museum of Art and returned to its original site last month.  

The 10th century stone figure of Uma Maheswar, stolen from Gaa Hiti in Patan 50 years ago, was also handed over to the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC by the Denver Art Museum in September 2021. 

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