Global Investigative Reporting

NY Museum Encases Stolen Nepali Idols

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Trafficking of priceless resources from Nepal, including statues with spiritual and religious values, human and natural resources have been taking place for several centuries.  On 20th March 2023, Finance Uncovered (FU), a UK based organisation, and the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), with reporters from different parts of the world including Nepal, India, Italy, USA, UK and Egypt exposed that more than 1000 artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts catalogue in New York are linked to alleged looting and trafficking figures. This disclosure has raised questions as to how could a museum in New York house valuable resources without valid documentation of how it reached there.  In collaboration with Malia Politzer of FU, Spencer Woodman of ICIJ and Delphine Reuter, this author was involved in looking into the Nepal story. 

In the village of Bungmati, Nepal, above an ancient spring, stand two stone shrines and a temple. One of those shrines has a large hole where a statue of Shreedhar Vishnu, the Hindu protector god, used to be. Carved by master artisans nearly a thousand years ago, the sandstone god was flanked by the Hindu goddess Laxmi and the winged demigod Garuda and is considered a protective figure. For many years members of the local community carefully tended and worshipped the idol.

Stolen antiquities

Interestingly, the idol Shreedhar Vishnu, from this gap in the shrine at Bungmati was finally identified by an anonymous Facebook account called the Lost Arts of Nepal in 2021, after remaining in the Met Museum for almost 30 years.  “The statue of Shreedhar Vishnu, which was stolen from here in the 80s, was found in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1995. This statue had resided in Kota tole of Bungmati since the Lichchavi dynasty. A similar statue of Shreedhar Vishnu is also present in the complex of the Changunarayan temple, which is located east of Kathmandu, and is estimated that both could have been built by the same artist, about 1000 years ago in the 11th century,” informed architect and archaeologist Anil Tuladhar, a local from Bungmati.

ICIJ and FU found that hundreds of antiquities in the Met have no records going back to a country of origin. A look at the museum’s catalogue of more than 250 Nepali and Kashmiri antiquities, the team found that only three have any origin records which explained how it had left the place of its origin. The investigative team focussed on Nepal and Kashmir, as both places have experienced heavy looting that have received very little international news coverage. The only provenance that the Met gave for nearly 15 per cent of the Nepal pieces and 31 per cent of the Kashmiri pieces in its collection was the name Samuel Eilenberg, a Columbia University Math professor and antiquities collector who died in 1998.  

With the aid of Lost Arts of Nepal, three additional relics allegedly looted from Nepali temples to the Met’s collection were identified. Site visits and interviews with locals confirmed two of the three matches: a smooth, hand-painted wooden statue of a Nrityadevi at I-Baha Bahi, Patan Lalitpur, known as the Goddess of Dance, and an elaborately carved wooden bracket, allegedly stolen from a temple in the world heritage site of Bhaktapur. I-Baha Bahi is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Kathmandu Valley, according to members of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. In 1970, the temple was raided and the community’s gods and goddesses were stolen. 

 84-year-old Dana Bahadur Shakya and 51-year-old Kancha Shakya are residents of I Baha Bahi and both informed that the I-Baha Bahi site had several statues of Gods and Goddesses that had been stolen. Inspecting the idols on view on Met Museum, the octogenarian who is the head of that area confirmed the Nrityadevi was from the I-Baha Bahi site. There are 11 Shakya families in this area who worship the idols in this site and open it up to the public during community events. Five of these families live within the site. Now that the Lost Arts of Nepal and this reporter representing FU and ICIJ have been visiting them, the residents are hopeful that the idols would be returned back to their site so that Nepal will be restored with its glory and blessings.

Members of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign have asked Nepal’s government to help them approach the museums and get the relics back. “I understand the concept of preservation, but taking an object away from its living culture and putting it behind glass in a museum and then saying, ‘We are preserving this object for that country’ — it’s just completely wrong,” said Roshan Mishra of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. Ken Weine, a spokesperson for the Met, said the museum is “presently in direct discussion with Nepal regarding select objects from the Museum’s collection, and looks forward to a constructive resolution and ongoing and open dialogue.” He did not say which items were being discussed or whether the museum had plans to return them. 

Repatriation 

Nepal has had a ban on the export of culturally significant materials dating back to 1956. The vast majority of items acquired by museums outside the country after that year are likely stolen, according to Emiline Smith, a lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow's Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. “The Met shouldn’t have been dealing with (Nepali) objects at all,” Smith said. “Even if you have an object with provenance dating back to 1970, it should not have been traded after 1956.” 

As per the law of Nepal, most of the Nepali artifacts in Western collections may have been stolen. There have been some cases of gods and artifacts being repatriated. However, with constraints of resources to conduct proper investigation, the people working on restoration of Nepali heritage mainly trafficked resource, be it human or idols, often cannot gather evidences to take action and get back them. The government of Nepal, with help from the US embassy here, must now take action based on the cue of this recent expose. Otherwise, much of Nepal’s lost cultural heritage will remain behind glasses in Western museums, far from their communities of origin. The in-depth investigative story by FU and ICIJ can be read here:  https://www.financeuncovered.org/stories/new-york-met-museum-looted-antiquities-nepal-india     

https://www.icij.org/investigations/hidden-treasures/more-than-1000-artifacts-in-metropolitan-museum-of-art-catalog-linked-to-alleged-looting-and-trafficking-figures/

(Namrata Sharma is a journalist and women rights advocate. namrata1964@yahoo.com Twitter handle: @NamrataSharmaP)

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