The Rubin Art Museum announced on Monday that it will return two sculptures to Nepal after researchers working at the museum concluded that smugglers had stolen carved wooden artifacts from religious sites.
“We are deeply grateful,” Acting Consul General of Nepal Bishnu Prasad Gautam said in a statement. “The proactive response and thoughtful cooperation on the part of Rubin has positively impacted Nepal’s national efforts to recover the lost artefacts.”
The museum credited a non-profit organization called the Nepal Heritage Restoration Campaign for playing a role in the repatriation by raising questions about the history of the items. In September, a Twitter account associated with the recovery campaign was published by fears that the wooden relics were stolen
The restoration campaign played a role in bringing back at least seven relics from cultural institutions last year, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art.
The Rubin Museum said in a statement that the two relics were the first items in its collection to be illegally discovered. The institution is currently undertaking a full review of its artifacts over a period of five years, which includes filling in gaps in knowledge of provenance records.
“We have an ongoing obligation to scrutinize the art and objects we collect and exhibit. Archaeological theft continues to be a major concern in the art world,” the museum’s executive director, Jorrit Britchgi, said in a statement. “We consider it our duty to consider and resolve issues related to cultural property, including facilitating the return of the two objects in question.”
One of the relics is the top of a 17th-century wooden torana (decorative gate in Buddhist and Hindu architecture) from a temple complex in Patan called Yampi Mahavihara. Another example is a 14th-century carving of an Apsara with a garland (the female spirit of clouds and waters), which was originally part of a window decoration at Itum Bahal Monastery in Kathmandu.
Scientists working at the museum discovered that the garland went missing from the monastery in 1999, four years before it was acquired by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Cultural Foundation, which represents the founders of the Rubin Museum. Sandrine Miele, a spokeswoman for the museum, said the two artifacts were purchased privately but declined to name the dealers, saying they wished to remain anonymous.
The Department of Archeology of Nepal will determine whether the items will be returned to their original locations or to the national museum. In December, government officials returned a sculpture depicting the Hindu goddess Lakshmi Narayana to the pedestal of a temple in Patan after the Dallas Museum of Art returned it. During the festive procession, participants touched the artifact, which is considered a living god, bringing their fingers to their foreheads to convey a blessing.
Roshan Mishra, director of the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, hopes a similar ceremony will welcome items returning from the Ruby Museum. He helped the Nepal Heritage Restoration Campaign to publicize efforts to secure the return of wooden relics.
“I am so happy,” Mishra said in an interview. “If museums like Rubin actively repatriate their artifacts, I think it will be easier for other museums to follow suit.”