Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two archeological artifacts to Nepal: a 10th-century stone statue and a 13th-century wooden strut.
Shiva in Himalayan Abode with Ascetics, a 13-inch stone statue, depicts the prominent Hindu deity Shiva with two disciples at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. It arrived at the Met in 1995, remaining there until Nepali scholar Lain Singh Bangdel determined in his book, Inventory of Stone Sculptures of Kathmandu Valley, that it belonged to the Kankeswari Temple in Kathmandu, per a statement from the Met.
The wooden sculpture, Temple Strut with a Salabhinka, measures about 51 inches and has been at the Met since 1991. Through its own research and Mary Slusser’s book The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving, which contains photographs of the strut, the museum determined that the object came from Itum Baha, a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu. The Met believes that it was once joined to a sculpture of a Hindu nature-spirit called a yaksa, which is still at the temple.
“The Museum is committed to the responsible acquisition of archaeological art,” the Met says in its statement, “and applies rigorous provenance standards both to new acquisitions and … to works long in its collection in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history.”
Both works, which the Met says it received as gifts in the ’90s, will be displayed at the National Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu.
Bishnu Prasad Gautam, the acting Nepalese consul general, says in the statement that he appreciates the museum’s “ongoing dedication and commitment to working for the preservation and promotion of world cultural heritage.” He adds, “The warm cooperation we have received from the museum has deeply contributed to Nepal’s national efforts to recover and reinstate its lost artifacts.”
Those national efforts have been vigorous—and fruitful. As Zachary Small reported for the New York Times in 2021, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, a group of “citizen watchdogs and armchair experts,” helped recover seven artifacts last year—finding them everywhere from Australia to Dallas. Earlier this year, the Rubin Museum of Art returned two Nepalese artifacts that were smuggled out of the country.
“Culture is not really a priority in many developing countries,” Alisha Sijapati, a Nepalese journalist who directs the heritage campaign, told the Times. “But art historians and activists have changed how we value these stolen objects.”
In recent years, repatriation efforts have been gaining momentum at museums around the world. And at the Met alone, Nepal isn’t the only country currently tracking down its artifacts. As the Times’ Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley reported just yesterday, Cambodian officials are claiming that dozens of objects in the museum’s collection rightfully belong to them.
“The burden of proof should be on the Met to prove the Met has the right to legally own Cambodia’s national treasures,” Bradley Gordon, a lawyer representing Cambodia’s government, tells the Times. He adds: “The Met sets the standards for other museums, so it’s important that they are totally transparent.”