The Yale University Art Gallery has finalized plans to return a sculpture of a Buddhist goddess to Nepal, the university said Friday. The return is the latest in a series of museum repatriations of Nepali artifacts.
Yale acquired the artifact in 2015, though the donor has never been disclosed. The decision to bring the work back home to Nepal was a “collaborative one” done in tandem with the country’s government last year, the museum’s director, Stephanie Wiles, said.
Bishnu Prasad Gautam, acting consul general for Nepal, said in a statement that the return “will help Nepal preserve its history and culture and also support the national efforts to recover and reinstate the lost cultural properties.”
In most repatriation cases, a country will file a claim seeking the return of an object that they say is looted. According to Yale, the investigation into how the sculpture came to the U.S. was self-initiated and began in 2021. A 2022 report in the Nepali Times said that the object had been “selected” for return, though it did not get transported to Kathmandu until now.
The artifact, a sculpture of the deity Tara, came from the Bir Bhadreshwor Mahadev Temple in Bhaktapur. It dates back to either the late 9th century or early 10th century C.E..
According to Yale, the New York consulate for Nepal contacted the museum about the return midway through its investigation into the work’s history. That inquiry revealed that it had been at the temple as recently as 1976, at which point it had been “worshipped as the Hindu goddess Parvati in daily ritual,” the museum said.
Increased scrutiny is being paid to Nepali artifacts in museums, with institutions like the Rubin Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art having returned objects in their collections to the country in the past year. Much of the push to bring looted artifacts back to Nepal is being led by activists.
“Museums and collectors should realize that certain categories of sacred objects, like those from Nepal, never left the country legally or with the permission of communities that made and worshipped them,” scholars Erin L. Thompson and Emiline Smith wrote in a Hyperallergic op-ed last year. “They should realize they have a moral obligation to reverse the exploitive, violent, and condescending history of their relationships with Nepal and other source countries.”
Last month, 13 artifacts from India and Burma were seized from Yale by investigators. Officials involved said that many of the objects had passed through the hands of Subhash Kapoor, a disgraced New York dealer who has been accused of leading a trafficking ring that focused on looted antiquities.