Rubin Museum Agrees to Return Stolen Religious Artifacts to Nepal

An investigation launched by the New York cultural institution concluded that the 14th- and 17th-century carvings were “unlawfully obtained”

stone relief of woman flying with wings made of clouds
This 14th-century religious carving of a water spirit was part of a window decoration in a Kathmandu monastery. Rubin Museum of Art

The Rubin Museum of Art has pledged to return a pair of wooden carvings to Nepal after determining that the objects were stolen from religious sites and smuggled out of the South Asian country, reports Zachary Small for the New York Times.

Jorrit Britschgi, executive director of the Manhattan museum, announced the repatriation on Monday. Per a statement, the carvings—the upper section of a 17th-century frieze/torana, or ornamental gateway, and a garland-bearing apsara (a female cloud and water spirit) dated to the 14th century—are the first artifacts in the institution’s collection “confirmed to have been unlawfully obtained.”

“We have an ongoing duty to carefully research the art and objects we collect and exhibit,” says Britschgi in the statement. “The theft of archaeological objects continues to be a major concern in the art world. ... 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.”

Volunteers at the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC) informed the museum of the objects’ possibly stolen status last September. As Cassie Packard wrote for Hyperallergic at the time, the nonprofit cited 1970s photos showing the religious artifacts at temples in Nepal as proof of its claim. (Lost Arts of Nepal, a group run by an unidentified member of NHRC’s advisory council, posted the archival images on social media the same day the campaign raised its concerns with the Rubin.) In response, the museum commissioned two independent scholars to research the carvings’ provenance. 

a stone fragment relief of Buddhist figures
Carved in the 17th century, this torana was confirmed by museum officials to have been stolen from a temple complex in Nepal. Rubin Museum of Art

According to the Nepali Times, the 17th-century artifact once formed part of an arched gateway at the Yampi Mahavihara temple complex in Lalitpur, Nepal’s third-largest city. Experts were unable to determine when the carving was removed; the Rubin acquired it in 2010 through a private sale.

The apsara carving, meanwhile, was used as a window decoration at the Itum Bahal monastery in Kathmandu until its theft in 1999. Like the torana fragment, it was purchased in a private sale in 2003.

In a ceremony at the Rubin, Britschgi signed a memorandum of understanding for the return of the artifacts with Bishnu Prasad Gautam, Nepal’s acting consul general. The institution will cover the cost of transporting the objects back to Nepal—a process that should be completed by May, reports Taylor Dafoe for Artnet News. Once the carvings are returned, Nepal’s Department of Archaeology will decide whether to return them to their original sites or display them at a museum.

“We are deeply grateful,” says Gautam in the statement. “... The proactive response and thoughtful collaboration from the Rubin have positively contributed to Nepal’s national efforts to recover the lost artifacts.”

Roshan Mishra, director of the Kathmandu-based Taragaon Museum, hopes Nepal will hold a celebratory event when the carvings are returned.

“I am so happy,” Mishra, who aided the NHRC’s efforts, tells the New York Times. “If museums like the Rubin are actively repatriating their artifacts, ... it will be easier for other museums to follow their lead.”

Over the past year, the NHRC has assisted in the return of at least seven objects, including a tenth-century sculpture held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a stone stele of the Hindu deity Lakshmi-Narayana that was on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art from a private collection, per the New York Times.

Established in 2004 by art collectors Donald and Shelley Rubin, the Rubin is home to more than 3,800 Himalayan objects spanning some 1,500 years. The museum is currently five years into a review of its holdings’ provenance.