Citizen activists lead hunt for looted antiquities in Nepal
Roshan Mishra recalls standing inside the New South Wales Art Gallery in Australia, looking into the eyes of a wooden goddess which he believed to be the same artifact that had disappeared nearly 50 years earlier from a local temple in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, where he lives.
Mishra, director of the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, describes this meeting in 2019 as the event that inspired him to create a digital archives of nearly 3,000 Nepalese artifacts which he says are held by museums outside the country.
Two years later, the archives he works with his wife are at the heart of a citizen effort to use the Internet to track down missing gods and goddesses, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who were looted in Nepal.
Emails now arrive daily from antiques experts and hobbyists with tips and finds, a process that has helped a small, resource-strapped country persuade some of the world’s most prestigious museums to part with treasures artifacts.
“When I look at the inquiries I get, it’s amazing,” Mishra said. “Now it has become the work of my life. “
The Australian museum is currently negotiating the possible repatriation of the 13th-century wooden goddess with Nepalese officials, according to a spokesperson for the institution.
Seven other sculptures have already been returned this year to Nepal thanks to information provided by citizen observers and armchair experts who call themselves the Nepalese heritage recovery campaign.
In September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a 10th-century statue of a Hindu deity. In March, a campaign member assisted the FBI in a repatriation case involving a Nepalese sculpture that was returned by the Dallas Museum of Art.
“Culture is not really a priority in many developing countries,” said Alisha Sijapati, a Nepalese journalist who is now leading the campaign as director. “But art historians and activists have changed the way we value these stolen objects.”
It was an artist, who is studying to be a midwife in Sweden, who helped secure the return of the statue to the Dallas Museum. “It feels like a small victory every time something comes up,” said Joy Lynn Davis, 42, the artist, who said she often spends hours on the internet searching for Nepalese artifacts.
Her interest in culture developed almost 20 years ago during a university trip to Nepal where she learned that sculptures of Hindu deities are treated like living gods and goddesses. Later, in 2015, while researching images of the Hindu deity Lakshmi-Narayana, she came across a photograph of a sculpture of the deity at the Dallas Museum. Davis had previously spoken to people in a village where a statue of the god had been taken and she had seen an image of this statue. This statue of Dallas looked like an identical match.
When the FBI began pursuing the return of the Dallas statue in 2020, they contacted Davis and asked if she would be an expert witness in the case. She agreed and provided the officers with an 11-page report on the relic.
Nepalese authorities have applauded the efforts of repatriation advocates like Davis who are investigating the looted items at a time when the government lacks the resources to pursue every claim. “I can only say that the majority of the artifacts now on display in the collections are very likely to have been stolen.” said Kumar Raj Kharel, deputy head of mission at the Nepalese embassy in Washington.
Many experts, including Harvard art historian Jinah Kim, said about 80% of Nepalese artifacts outside the country were likely illegal exports. But it wasn’t until 2015 that an anonymous Facebook page called Lost arts of Nepal started accusing museums of holding looted items as repatriation efforts gained traction. The page now has over 17,000 subscribers and collaborates with the recovery campaign in researching and publishing complaints.
The approach echoes the earlier efforts of Vijay Kumar, a writer who in 2008 began using social media to identify religious artifacts stolen from Indian temples. His blog, named Poetry in stone, became popular for its coverage of antique dealer Subhash Kapoor, now jailed in India for smuggling and theft. In 2014, Kumar transformed the blog into a non-profit organization, the Pride of India Project, which helps the Indian government track down looted items. He also sits on the advisory committee of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.
Finding evidence of looting is only the first step in the repatriation process. The association begins by sending a letter identifying a find to Nepal’s Department of Archeology, which examines the contraband allegations and passes those credible to the Foreign Ministry. Officials from the embassies of the countries where the objects are found take over, contacting institutions and collectors to negotiate the return of the stolen objects.
“From the day we issue a letter until the day it gets to the embassy, it takes about a month,” Mishra said.
The Nepalese Heritage Recovery Campaign independently informs museums of potentially looted artefacts, but has found it essential to work with the government. “There is a lot of paperwork and the institutions do not answer us directly because we are not part of the government. Mishra said.
The campaign also sends notifications of complaints to UNESCO, whose 1970 Convention has been ratified by more than 140 countries, each pledging to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property. He has become the ethical benchmark that tries to put pressure on institutions to refuse to acquire antiques leaving a country after 1970.
In some cases, United Nations officials notified of a claim will notify Interpol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for further investigation.
When the artefacts return, the Nepalese authorities must decide whether to return the sacred sculptures to their altars or, as is usually the case, to keep them in a national museum. Seven months after the repatriation of a Hindu stele by the Dallas Museum, the relic is still kept at the Patan Museum in Nepal. Resettlement talks are underway with the local community, who revere these sculptures like living gods. But a replica has taken its place for nearly 40 years, cultivating its own religious significance.
“People say maybe the replica can stay and the original can go to a higher position,” said Mishra, who has been involved in the conversations. “We hope that the resettlement can take place soon. “
Recently, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign lobbied the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, which has over 600 artefacts from Nepal. The campaign revealed archival photographs which it says show that two carved wooden objects now in the museum’s collection were still in their temples in the 1970s, indications that researchers put forward as evidence that the objects were likely stolen.
The museum did not agree with this opinion, but hired two independent researchers to investigate the provenance of the two objects.
“Provenance research is an essential function of all curatorial and collections management staff,” Jorrit Britschgi, museum executive director, said via email. He added that the Rubin began a full review of his collection five years ago, which involves filling knowledge gaps about his artefacts. “We adhere to high standards of ethical and professional practice. We have never knowingly acquired items known to have been illicitly traded, smuggled or stolen.
Erin Thompson, associate professor of artistic crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and advisor to the Recovery Campaign, said that in practice the laws around repatriation are unclear.
“Most of the returns have been agreements between museums and the government,” said Thompson, who called museums neglecting their due diligence responsibilities by not posting full provenances online.
But the records already online have been an extremely useful resource for trackers. Earlier this month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a report titled “Pandora Papers,” which found that museums around the world hold at least 43 Cambodian relics with links to Douglas Latchford, an Englishman indicted by the United States in 2019 for illicit trafficking in antiques.
“Now you don’t need to visit the Metropolitan Museum to see what the sacred Nepalese works of art are,” Thompson said. “The activists in Kathmandu can see where their legacy has gone, and they can claim it. “
At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, curators have begun searching for two objects suspected of having links to Latchford associates and are in conversation with American lawyer Bradley J. Gordon who represents Cambodia in its hunt for looted antiques.
Robert Mintz, deputy director of arts and programs, said a key to improving the ability to identify looted antiquities is for museums to expand their digital archives so that documents are more accessible.
“We should have a searchable digital archive of all import and export documents and sales receipts that we conscientiously keep on file,” Mintz said in an interview. But he also warned against over-generalizing the field of antiques as being filled with stolen items.
“I think it is an exaggeration, for example, to say that everything that is made in Nepal and that is now outside of Nepal has been looted,” Mintz said. “We should be guided by the facts and not let our emotional state lead the discussion.”