Online Activists Are Driving the Fight to Get Stolen Artifacts Repatriated toNepal

“It’s not just an art object that is lost, they have stolen our faith,” the founder of Lost Arts of Nepal said.

The repatriation to Nepal of four antiquities valued at more than $1 million early this past December included a large pair of gilt-bronze Bhairava masks. The return of the masks, stolen in the mid-1990s, sold at auction, and then eventually entering the collections of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and the Dallas Museum of Art, was a major victory. But though it was Nepal’s New York Consul taking the credit at the hand-over ceremony at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, it was an anonymous whistleblower who first matched the masks to their former owner.

“It’s not just an art object that is lost, they have stolen our faith,” the founder of Lost Arts of Nepal, a Facebook page dedicated to raising awareness of stolen artifacts, and the identifier of the Bhairava masks, told ARTnews.

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The return of the masks is just the latest victory for a group of Nepalese activists who, in the past decade, have almost single-handedly jump-started the effort in Nepal to get back thousands of artifacts that were stolen or looted from the country starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the ’70s and ’80s. For the activists, the effort is not just about getting back wrongfully taken treasures, but about restoring the living culture of the country, well-known for its sacred ancient temples and stunning palaces.

The current push toward repatriation in Nepal is considered by most to have started in 2015, when Lost Arts of Nepal was launched in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating earthquake that rocked the country, killing 8,964 people and injuring 21,952 more. Inspired by the destruction that heritage sites suffered, the founder aimed to document and spread awareness of the country’s lost heritage that was housed in foreign museums, private collections, and auction houses. Lost Arts has remained anonymous in order to encourage individuals to take ownership of the repatriation initiative, rather than treating it as their personal project.

In many ways, that strategy has worked. In the years since, Lost Arts of Nepal has grown its following to 23,000 people, primarily by using online research to detect Nepalese artifacts in European and American museums that may have been looted. Such research is frequently the starting point for major repatriation cases, whether initiated by other activists or academics or museum professionals in the United States or Europe.

And Lost Arts is far from the only Nepalese activist using the internet to push for repatriation. In 2019 Roshan Mishra, director of the privately run Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, created the Global Nepali Museum, an online archive showcasing thousands of Nepalese objects held in foreign institutions. Mishra has said that it was an encounter in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia with a wooden goddess that he believed to be the same as one lost from a temple near where he lives that inspired him to start the organization.

During the pandemic, Mishra and his wife, Apara, grew the archive to more than 5,000 objects, by individually extracting the data and uploading it to the online museum. As the archive grew, Mishra was approached by an associate, Kanak Dixit, and they decided to start the National Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC) with three other activists. In 2021 they formally registered NHRC as a nonprofit organization.

NHRC and Lost Arts frequently work together. Jointly, they have identified more than 120 artifacts that they believe to have been stolen, and have successfully repatriated 30. They currently have 50 open repatriation cases, according to both Mishra and Lost Arts.

According to Mishra, registering the organization as a nonprofit helps them streamline the process and have a formal dialogue with the government.

“The reason we wanted to create as a [nonprofit] organization is that in Nepal’s case, it is almost impossible for us to work independently, and then try to have that dialogue with the government,” Mishra said.

A Collaboration Between Activists and the Nepalese Government

Artifacts are on display during a preview of
Artifacts on display during a preview of “Masterpieces of Tibetan and Nepalese Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013. The Met has become embroiled in repatriation claims over objects in its collection of Asian artifacts in recent years. AFP via Getty Images

Together, NHRC and Lost Arts of Nepal have become the primary initiators for restitution or repatriation claims in Nepal. Typically, NHRC identifies Nepalese objects when they are posted by foreign museums to their websites. Then, they send them on to Lost Arts of Nepal, who Mishra says is an “informal adviser” for NHRC. The Lost Arts founder then works to identify whether the object in the image is, in fact, a stolen artifact by matching it to various archival sources.

“There are various sources from which we could manage to trace the stolen artifacts like books, articles, old photographic records from early travelers, various archives, local community records, and oral history from elders,” Lost Arts founder said.

After Lost Arts of Nepal compiles its case, NHRC passes it on to the government’s Department of Archaeology, which reviews the claims and then forwards those it deems accurate to the Foreign Ministry. From there, the respective countries’ embassies are contacted, which in turn contact the museum or auction house.

“This is a very formal way of going about the process. There’s no way we can send an email to the museum asking them to return the artifact. It’s never going to work,” Mishra said.

This repatriation process typically takes three to four weeks, minimum. For particularly contentious or complex cases, it can sometimes take years. But it has proved to be an effective way for Nepal to register cases and get objects returned, Mishra said.

The government of Nepal, through a spokesperson for the Department of Archaeology, told Foreign Policy this past November, that it has successfully recovered 143 stolen antiquities from abroad. Thirty-five of those objects have been reinstated at their original sites; the others are either in storage or on display in local museums.

“Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been lost in the past five decades, and we have been able to scratch just the surface,” Lost Arts founder said.

Institutional Intransigence Remains a Problem

Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

While some museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum, and others have been cooperative when presented with restitution or repatriation claims, others have stalled claims for years. In particular, Mishra and his team have long been trying to convince the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) to repatriate a gilt-copper necklace dedicated to the Hindu goddess Taleju Bhawani dating to around 1650 CE.

Lost Arts of Nepal first identified the necklace as possibly looted in a 2017 Facebook post. However, it was not until 2021, when Sweta Baniya, an assistant professor of rhetoric at Virginia Tech, posted about the necklace on X, then known as Twitter, that it drew the attention of the Nepalese government, according to an investigation published last year in ProPublica, in partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business. Shortly after, Nepal formally asked AIC to return the necklace and provided an archaeological report suggesting it had been smuggled out of the country.

An inscription on the necklace, which AIC notes on its website, indicates it was gifted by King Pratapamalladeva to Taleju at the Taleju temple located in Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu, Nepal. The necklace was transferred to the Hanuman Dhoka Museum for safekeeping in 1970, before disappearing. According to AIC, it was purchased in 1976 by James and Marilyn Alsdorf, noted Chicago-based collectors of Asian artifacts, and then donated to the museum in 2010. (James died in 1990; Marilyn died in 2019, leaving much of her collection to AIC.)

In their investigation, ProPublica found that 24 objects donated by the Alsdorfs had incomplete provenance, and found evidence that at least four, including the necklace, may have been looted and illegally exported. It also found nine objects once owned by the Alsdorfs that have since been repatriated. AIC has yet to return any of the objects in question.

According to Mishra, the museum has not engaged in any kind of dialogue with NHRC or the Nepalese government regarding the necklace.

“I think the only thing we can do is create pressure through social media and other printed articles,” Mishra said. “[ProPublica] published the same article in seven different newspapers, and that is the only way to deal with it.”

AIC, however, told ARTnews that it has been “in contact” with the Nepalese government. “We sent a letter in May 2022 and are awaiting a response. We are open to learning about any additional information the government has to share on this matter and will continue working directly with the government of Nepal,” a spokesperson for AIC said.

In 2021 AIC assisted Nepal in the return of a looted sculpture of a Hindu deity held by a private collector who appears to have been Alsdorf. At least two other objects were returned to Nepal from US-based institutions that year.

Funding Is Often the Biggest Hurdle for Nepalese Repatriation

Government support is an important part of the repatriation process for these activists. From filing the case to contacting the respective foreign embassy and institutions, the diplomatic channels help create a formal dialogue. Furthermore, once the artifact reaches the Nepal border, the government helps with any custom issues that might arise.

However, working with the Nepalese government has been difficult at times, according to Mishra, who said the Department of Archaeology has not allocated funds for repatriation, which is necessary, at the very minimum, for packaging and transporting the objects to Nepal. That has often left the activists to fundraise from the local embassy or sometimes even the museum repatriating the object.

“The Nepalese government has failed to allocate the funds and every time we claim something, we need to look for money. If there are no funds then we will not be able to repatriate them,” Mishra said.

In one recent case, the team helped located the 800-year-old stone idol of Lakshmi Narayan at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), on loan for an exhibition in 2019. Stolen in 1984 from Narayan Temple of Patan’s Patko Tole and then auctioned in 1990, the piece has drawn the attention of academics and artists over the years. When the DMA agreed to repatriate the object in 2021, the American shipping company UPS financially supported the return, according to Mishra.

Another challenge faced by activists is that there is not a separate unit within the Department of Archaeology to document the stolen artifacts and handle the claims.

“They need to create a working mechanism where the Department of Archaeology, the local government, and the Foreign Ministry come together to work on the issue. It’s not going to happen through one department,” Mishra said.

Neither the Nepalese government nor the Department of Archaeology responded to a request for comment.

Over the years, Mishra has noticed an increased awareness among the people regarding Nepalese artifacts, which has led museums and institutions to be more cautious when acquiring these objects.

Two days after ProPublica published its investigation last March, Christie’s held an auction for Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian works of art that offered seven Nepalese objects among 124 lots. One such object was a 7¼-inch copper alloy buddha figure from the 9th-century Licchavi period. The rare buddha was part of the Alsdorf collection, and was on loan to AIC from 1996 to 2022. At the auction, the buddha failed to receive a single bid at or above its low estimate of $60,000.

Christie’s told ARTnews that they cannot “speculate on the reasons for a single result, in a single auction.”

“Christie’s plays a prominent role in the open, transparent, and global marketplace for works of art, and devotes considerable resources to investigating the provenance of the works we offer for sale,” a Christie’s spokesperson said.

For Mishra and his fellow activists, however, the failed sale felt like a major win, even as the Taleju necklace, and other objects, remain in limbo.

“This is a big result for us. I believe that if the NHRC was not making any of these claims or was not working in the way we have been working now, that sort of results would not have been possible,” Mishra said.

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