Two artifacts stolen nearly 30 years ago from a temple in Nepal were repatriated in a ceremony Friday at the Nepalese embassy in London.
The 16th-century carved wooden Torana, a ceremonial gateway, and the 17th-century stone statue of a kneeling devotee were both taken from sacred sites near Kathmandu, said detective superintendent John Roch of the London Metropolitan police at the handover, which was attended by the Nepalese ambassador Gyan Chandra Acharya.
In a statement, both parties expressed “their willingness to work closely and promote the collaborative efforts for the preservation of cultural heritage.”
The artifacts were found in the holdings of Barakat Gallery’s London branch, according to The Art Newspaper. Referring to the gallery’s owner, Fayez Barakat, as “the dealer”, London’s Metropolitan police stated that both pieces had been inherited from a deceased relative and had been in the family’s possession for two decades. Barakat voluntarily relinquished the artifacts after they were determined to be the looted cultural property of Nepal. The gallery is not under suspicion of antiquities trafficking; London authorities reported that this was the first instance of a London commercial gallery willingly returning Nepalese artifacts.
Prior to the artifacts’ theft in the late 1980s, both pieces were photographed in situ by the art historian Ulrich von Schroeder for his publication Nepalese Stone Sculptures — Volume 2. The high-quality photographs helped prove irrefutably that they had been illegally trafficked from Nepal.
The images of both were spotted in an online database by the activist group Lost Arts of Nepal, which tweeted their findings last November. In the post, the group tagged Emiline Smith, a professor of criminology at the University of Glasgow who specializes in the global illegal trade in cultural objects originating from Asia. Smith brought the post to the attention of the authorities in Nepal and Interpol, which then connected with London’s police.
“I am deeply committed to [supporting] Nepali efforts in protecting and repatriating its rich cultural heritage, and hope we can all continue to fight to reinstate access, agency and power over their living heritage to the Nepali people,” Smith wrote on Twitter on March 18.
Citizen watchdog groups have spearheaded several successful efforts to repatriate stolen sacred statuary to Nepal. Aided by the growing trend for museums to digitize their collections, activists are more easily than ever linking artifacts to the temples and stupas they once adorned.
Last year, Lost Arts of Nepal, which was founded in 2015, shared on its social media channels that two carved wooden artifacts in the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York were taken from the facades of Yampi Mahavihara, Lalitpur, and Itum Bahal in Kathmandu, respectively. Facing pressure from the activist group Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, the museum announced this January that both pieces, a 17th-century ornamental element and a carving of the female deity Gandharva from the 14th century, will be returned to Nepal.
Nepal’s acting consul general Bishnu Prasad Gautam received the artifacts on behalf of the Nepalese government in a ceremony organized by the museum. In a statement, Gautam called the repatriation “proactive,” adding that the Rubin’s cooperation has “positively contributed to Nepal’s national efforts” to recover its stolen cultural property from foreign collections.