Manhattan DA Repatriates Four Antiquities to Nepal Using An Anonymous Whistlerblower’s Family Photos - The World News

Manhattan DA Repatriates Four Antiquities to Nepal Using An Anonymous Whistlerblower’s Family Photos

Four antiquities, valued at more than $1 million, were recently returned to Nepal by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s Office, the office announced in a statement Monday.

The pieces being returned to Nepal include a large pair of gilt bronze Bhairava masks, dating to the 16th century, that are collectively valued at $900,000.

According to the Manhattan DA’s office, “the masks depict the god as Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity which also includes Brahma and Vishnu. They were used for ritual worship during the annual Indra Jātrā festival in Nepal. Both masks were stolen in the mid-1990s as part of a series of break-in robberies from the home of the family whose relatives created the masks. They were then smuggled to Hong Kong, sold at auction in New York, and subsequently entered the collections of the Rubin Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art until they were recovered earlier this year by the Office.”

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Draped Male Figure, c. 150 BCE–200 CE. Roman or possibly Greek Hellenistic. Bronze, hollow cast in several pieces and joined; overall: 193 cm (76 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1986.5

One of the Bhairava masks on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in 2022. Photo courtesy of Erin Thompson.

The items were matched using family photographs submitted to an anonymous whistleblower known online as Lost Arts of Nepal. Thompson submitted the tip from Lost Arts to the DA’s office in September of 2022.

“As far as I know, the first such match in Nepal,” Erin Thompson, a professor specializing in art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told ARTnews.

As part of the investigation, the DA’s office retrieved the police report filed by the family at the time of the thefts, and had it translated by a Nepali lawyer.

On February 28, the Rubin Museum removed its Bhairava mask “for provenance research purposes”.

A notice at the Rubin Museum of Art about the temporary removal of its Bhairava mask, one of the items repatriated to Nepal. Courtesy of Erin Thompson.

According to documents reviewed by ARTnews, Rubin Museum executive director Jorrit Britschgi did not dispute the seizure of the Bhairava mask by the Manhattan DA’s office on March 16.

Provenance research in museums and private collections often focuses on scholars’ books or photography archives to show whether or not an object was stolen. For Thompson, the successful use of family photographs as proof of the Bhairava masks’ origins could also how repatriations are handled by foreign collections of antiquities.

“I think that there should be a push toward museums and collectors to really think about returning things before that proof comes up, and not waiting until that happens,” she said.

According to Thompson, the Bhairava masks are also not for people, but pots for beer, which would then be served to worshipers during the Indra Jātrā festival.

One of the other items repatriated to Nepal, a ten-armed Durga statue, was seized as part of the office’s investigation into convicted art trafficker Subhash Kapoor. According to the Manhattan DA’s office, the statue was allegedly smuggled out of Nepal “by the Zeeshan and Zahid Butt trafficking network, which was run by Kapoor’s alleged co-conspirators. The statue was then purchased from the Butts in Bangkok by Kapoor and subsequently trafficked into New York in the early 2000s, before it was recovered from a Kapoor-owned storage unit.”

The four items were returned to Nepal during a ceremony with Nepal’s acting New York Consul General Bishnu Prasad Gautam and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Special Agent in Charge Christopher Lau on Monday.

“The return of these illegally exported four masterpieces is a significant step in reclaiming Nepal’s cultural heritage and preserving its historical treasures,” Gautam said in a press statement. “This has deeply contributed to Nepal’s national efforts of recovery and reinstatement of lost cultural properties. The cooperation and collaboration between Nepal and the Manhattan District Attorney in this field, like in others, are deeply commendable and inspirations for the international community in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts.”

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