Following Activists’ Calls, Rubin Museum to Return Looted Nepalese Artifacts

The Rubin Museum of Art in New York said this week that it will return two ancient artifacts believed by researchers to have been looted from religious sites in Nepal following a review of the objects’ provenance records. An activist group that tracks looted Nepali cultural property, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, had called on the museum to return the two wooden sculptures after identifying them as having been stolen in September.

One of the objects, an ornamental element that was once part of a 17th-century temple complex in Patan called the Yampi Mahavihara, came into the museum’s collection in 2010. The other, a carving of a female deity Gandharva in mid-flight from the 14th century, entered the museum’s collection in 2003. It was originally part of a window decoration in the Itum Bahal monastery in the Kathmandu Valley.

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Nepal’s acting consul general Bishnu Prasad Gautam received the pieces on behalf of the nation’s government in a ceremony arranged by the Rubin Museum of Art on Tuesday. Gautam called the repatriation “proactive,” adding that the Rubin’s cooperation has “positively contributed to Nepal’s national efforts” to recover its stolen cultural property.

In a statement issued in September, the museum said it was investigating “the proper course of action” to address the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign’s claims and was in contact with the Consulate General of Nepal in New York regarding potential restitution of the pieces.

Records related to the aspara carving indicate that it was looted from the monastery in 1999, before the museum’s founders Shelley and Donald Rubin purchased it in a private deal as part of their namesake cultural trust. The other artifact was purchased privately.

The museum, which has a collection dedicated to Himalayan art and artifacts, is conducting a full review of its artifacts’ provenance records. That project was initiated with researchers in 2016.

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign has played a role in the return of a handful of other looted relics recently from major U.S. museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Denver Art Museum.

Nepal’s Department of Archaeology has yet to announce whether the objects will be given to the country’s national museum or if they will be returned to their original sites.


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