Egypt and Greece have for decades been demanding that the British Museum and the Louvre return antiquities stolen in past centuries. In October, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement setting out a timetable for the return of 1,100 objects from German museums. Artist Joy Lynn Davis believes that there is now a more conducive international climate for repatriation of antiquities, and Nepal can take the lead.
Appealing to the conscience of collectors has worked in the past. In August 1994, an American collector voluntarily returned four gods after he was shown Lain Singh Bangdel’s photographs proving their public ownership: a 12th century Saraswati, a 9th century Buddha, a 14th century Surya, and a 10th century Vishnu. In 2000, the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin returned the 12th century Uma-Maheswar stolen from Wo Tole in Dhulikhel in 1982.
In April, a 13th-century Chaturmukhi Shivalinga was handed over by the Art Institute of Chicago to the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC, and in September the Denver Art Museum returned the 10th century Uma-Maheswar that had been stolen 50 years ago from Ga Hiti of Patan.
One pressing concern is that the original shrines may have been destroyed or damaged in the 2015 earthquake. Some communities may also not be prepared to take the objects back right away.
Suresh Man Lakhe of Patan Museum says that while the best option is always to give the repatriated objects to the community, museums in Nepal should also be prepared to hold them for safekeeping until the community is ready.
“The priority is always full restitution,” Lakhe says, “But when these objects return, they do not immediately go back to their original places. So, Patan Museum is opening a gallery for returned objects while they await re-installation.”
Apart from safekeeping, museums can also conduct necessary documentation and research, since some returned objects have not been properly identified.
Lakhe adds, “To install them in situ is our priority. The deities become stale and stagnant in museums. Restored to their shrines, the gods can be worshipped again.”