Citizen Activists Lead the Hunt for Antiquities Looted From Nepal

Roshan Mishra recalls standing inside the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia, staring into the eyes of a wooden goddess that he believed was the same artifact that had disappeared nearly 50 years earlier from a local temple in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, where he lives.

Mishra, director of the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, describes that encounter, in 2019, as the event that inspired him to create a digital archive of nearly 3,000 Nepalese artifacts that he believes are being held by museums outside the country.

Two years later, the archive that he operates with his wife is at the heart of a citizen-led effort to use the internet to find the missing gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas that have been looted from Nepal.

Emails now arrive daily from antiquities 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 precious artifacts.

“When I look at the inquiries that I get, it’s unbelievable,” said Mishra. “Now this has become my life’s work.”

The Australian museum is now negotiating possible repatriation of the 13th-century wooden goddess with Nepalese officials, according to a spokesman for the institution.

Seven other sculptures have already been returned this year to Nepal because of information provided by the citizen watchdogs and armchair experts who call themselves the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

In September, it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art that returned a 10th-century statue of a Hindu deity. In March, a campaign member helped the F.B.I. in a repatriation case regarding a Nepalese sculpture which was returned by the Dallas Museum of Art.

“Culture is not really a priority in many developing countries,” said Alisha Sijapati, a Nepalese journalist now leading the campaign as its director. “But art historians and activists have changed how we value these stolen objects.”

It was an artist, who is studying to become a midwife in Sweden, who helped secure the return of the statue from the Dallas museum. “It feels like a little win every time something goes back,” said Joy Lynn Davis, 42, the artist, who said she often spends hours on the internet researching Nepalese artifacts.

Her interest in the culture developed nearly 20 years ago during a college trip to Nepal where she learned that Hindu deity sculptures are treated as 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 from which a statue of the god had been taken and she had seen an image of that statue. This Dallas statue seemed an identical match.

When the F.B.I. began pursuing the return of the Dallas statue in 2020, they reached out to Davis and asked if she would be an expert witness in the case. She agreed and provided the agents with an 11-page report on the relic.

Officials in Nepal have applauded the efforts of repatriation advocates like Davis who investigate looted objects at a time when the government lacks the resources to pursue every claim. “I can only say that the majority of artifacts now displayed in collections are highly likely to have been stolen.” said Kumar Raj Kharel, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Nepal in Washington.

Many experts, including the Harvard art historian Jinah Kim, said that about 80 percent of Nepalese artifacts outside the country were likely to be illegal exports. But it wasn’t until 2015 when an anonymous Facebook page called Lost Arts of Nepal started accusing museums of holding looted objects that repatriation efforts gained traction. The page now has more than 17,000 followers and collaborates with the Recovery Campaign in researching and publicizing claims.

The approach echoes earlier efforts by Vijay Kumar, a writer who in 2008 started using social media to identify religious artifacts stolen from Indian temples. His blog, named Poetry in Stone, became popular for its coverage of the antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, now jailed in India on smuggling and theft charges. In 2014, Kumar turned the blog into a nonprofit, the India Pride Project, which assists the Indian government in tracking down looted objects. He also now serves on the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign’s advisory committee.

Finding evidence of looting is only the first step in the repatriation process. The nonprofit starts by sending a letter identifying a find to Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, which reviews smuggling claims and forwards credible ones to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Embassy officials in the countries where the items are found take over from there, connecting with institutions and collectors to negotiate the return of stolen artifacts.

“From the day we issue a letter to the day it reaches the embassy takes about a month,” said Mishra.

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign independently notifies museums of potentially looted artifacts but has found that working through the government is essential. “There is a lot of paperwork, and institutions won’t directly respond to us because we aren’t part of the government.” Mishra said.

The campaign also sends notifications of claims to UNESCO, whose 1970 Convention was ratified by more than 140 countries, each pledging to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property. It has become the ethical benchmark that attempts to pressure institutions to refuse to acquire antiquities taken out of a country after 1970.

In some cases, United Nations officials notified of a claim will inform Interpol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for further inquiry.

When artifacts do return, officials in Nepal must decide whether to send the sacred sculptures back to their altars or — as is usually the case — keep them in a national museum. Seven months after the Dallas Museum repatriated a Hindu stele, the relic is still being held in Nepal’s Patan Museum. Re-installation talks are ongoing with the local community, which reveres these sculptures as living gods. But a replica has taken its place for nearly 40 years, cultivating its own religious significance.

“People are saying maybe the replica can stay and the original can go in a higher position,” said Mishra, who’s been involved in the conversations. “We are hoping re-installation can happen soon.”

Recently the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign has been pressing the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, which has more than 600 objects from Nepal. The campaign has surfaced archival photographs that it says shows that two carved wooden artifacts now in the museum’s collection were still in their temples during the 1970s, indications the researchers have put forward as evidence that the items were probably stolen.

The museum has not joined in that opinion, but has engaged two independent scholars to research the provenance of the two objects.

“Provenance research is a core function of the entire curatorial and collection management staff,” Jorrit Britschgi, the museum’s executive director, said by email. He added that the Rubin is five years into a full review of its collection, which involves filling in gaps of knowledge about its artifacts. “We adhere to high standards of ethical and professional practice. We have never knowingly acquired objects that are known to have been illicitly traded, smuggled or stolen.”

Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an adviser with the Recovery Campaign, said that in practice, the laws are very unclear regarding repatriation.

“Most returns have been settlements between museums and the government,” said Thompson, who characterized museums as neglecting their responsibilities of due diligence by not posting full provenances online.

But the records already online have been a hugely helpful resource for trackers. Earlier this month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a report called the “Pandora Papers,” which found that museums around the world hold at least 43 Cambodian relics with ties to Douglas Latchford, an Englishman indicted by the United States in 2019 on charges that he illicitly trafficked in antiques.

“Now, you don’t need to visit the Metropolitan Museum to see what Nepali sacred artworks are there,” Thompson said. “Activists in Kathmandu can see where their heritage has gone, and they can claim it.”

At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, curators have started researching two items with suspected ties to Latchford’s associates and are in conversation with the American lawyer Bradley J. Gordon who is representing Cambodia in its hunt for looted antiquities.

Robert Mintz, deputy director for arts and programs, said one key to improving the ability to identify looted antiquities is for museums to expand their digital archives so that records are more accessible.

“We should have searchable digital archives of all the import and export documents and sales receipts that we dutifully keep in our records,” Mintz said during an interview. But he also cautioned against over-generalizing the antiquities field as being stocked with stolen objects.

“I think it’s an exaggeration, for example, to say that anything made inside Nepal that is now outside of Nepal was looted,” Mintz said. “We should be driven by the facts and not let our emotional state drive the discussion.”