Despite ongoing arrangements for its return, a stone relic looted from a Nepalese shrine in the 1980s is still on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The eleventh-century artifact featuring the Buddhist and Hindu god Vishnu was donated nearly thirty years ago from the personal collection of Steven Kossak, a former curator in the museum’s Asian art department whose dealings are now being scrutinized by academics, activists, and museum officials.
“This is the third thing that the Met is returning that was donated by the Kossaks,” Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told ARTnews, referring to the wooden strut and stone statue that were returned last year.
Deity sculptures are considered living gods in Nepal. The Vishnu relic is a highly symbolic rendition of the god surrounded by a pearl-and-flame aureole with his consort Lakshmi on one side and the eagle Garuda on the other. Standing on a raised platform with lotus decorations, Vishnu is depicted in his four-armed form with raised hands holding weapons: a discus and a club.
Thompson, who has advised on earlier Nepalese repatriation efforts, had visited the Met two weeks ago to take a closer look.
“The museum not only has donations from the family, but it has at least eight loans from them,” she said, adding that the Vishnu relic currently sits in a gallery near an exhibition including other Asian artifacts donated by the Kossaks through their Kronos Collection. “Once you know that someone is acquiring artifacts without looking too closely as a source, the first thing you should do is look deeper.”
In recent years, government officials, both in the US and abroad, have increased scrutiny on the provenance of objects in the Met’s collection, echoing public calls for the repatriation of looted objects. Dozens of allegedly looted artifacts totalling tens of millions of dollars have been seized from the Met by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and returned to countries including Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Nigeria. Last September, the DA’s office executed its sixth warrant of 2022 to seize artifacts from the museum.
In October, Nepalese officials traveled to New York for a private meeting with Met officials, apparently to discuss the Vishnu relic: a photo of the meeting reviewed by ARTnews showed Asian art department chairman Maxwell K. Hearn passed a printed image of the relic to other officials. The institution said it has returned three religious icons to Nepal over the last two years with John Guy, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, traveling to the country last summer to open dialogue with culture officials in the country. Although the Vishnu relic will be returning to Nepal, officials have not settled on an exact date for repatriation.
The Met’s repatriation policy requires countries making an official claim on an object to prove that it was looted, stolen, or otherwise illegally exported.
A museum spokesman said the institution is “committed to the responsible acquisition of archaeological art and applies rigorous provenance standards both to new acquisitions and the study of works long in its collection in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history.”
The spokesman added that the museum is currently under discussion with the Nepalese government about select objects in its collection, adding that the institution “looks forward to a constructive resolution and ongoing and open dialogue.”
Long-Standing Donations Suddenly Look Questionable
Born into wealth, Steven Kossak started collecting Asian artifacts in the 1970s, building a trove of Indian paintings, Buddhist sculptures, and Hindu icons. In 1986, he joined the Met Museum as a research assistant and quickly ascended the ranks to a full curatorial position, sometimes using his own money to acquire artworks for the museum.
“When the Met couldn’t afford it, I bought it,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. Then he would often donate or loan the artworks to his employer.
Though Kossak left the museum in 2006, his influence has continued. In 2016, for example, he made a promised gift of some 100 paintings from India’s Rajput Courts that he said had an estimated value between $15 million to $20 million. The paintings were celebrated in an exhibition that year with an accompanying publication that he helped author.
Thompson has worried that the curator’s expertise and financial power might have incentivized the museum to accept relics without independent research on provenance. Other repatriation advocates have expressed concern about Kossak’s relationship with colleague Martin Lerner, who led the Asian art department’s collecting efforts until 2003 when he left the institution.
Last year, the New York Times documented the business relationship between Lerner and Douglas Latchford, an antiquities collector who was indicted in 2019 by New York officials for illegally trafficking artifacts from Cambodia. Though Latchford died in 2020, his problems have become an ongoing issue for the Met. In August, the Times reported that Cambodian officials said that 13 artifacts donated to the museum by Latchford were looted.
Kossak did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
An Increasingly Challenging Museum Environment
The repeated seizures and repatriations come as the institution is still recovering from the economic consequences of the pandemic, which it has estimated will create a $150 million shortfall. The museum has responded to these pressures by providing museum employees scripts to use if pressed by visitors about looted objects.
What should a docent say when asked if there are stolen artworks in the collection?
The three-page handout obtained by ARTnews reads: “The Met works rigorously to avoid any stolen property entering the collection, and has always followed the laws in place at the time of acquisition. The Museum also is continually researching the history of works in the collection — often in collaboration with colleagues in countries around the world — and has a long track record of acting on new information as appropriate.”
Some officials have also decided that the antiquities market is too dicey, according to one insider source. A Met spokesman confirmed that the ancient Near Eastern art department has stopped collecting from the auction market because of its reputation for illicit trafficking.
In interviews, four current and former employees speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations said that most departments were genuinely interested in proactively researching artifacts for repatriation. But the size of the Met’s collection, which spans more than two million objects, presents a challenge.
Many scholars and activists have taken it upon themselves to conduct the research. Volunteers with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, a nonprofit located in the Himalayan country, have a growing network of researchers dedicated to finding relics within museum collections and linking them to shrines through archival photographs. Within the last few years, their work has sparked returns from institutions like the Dallas Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum. Their work has also played a role in the Met Museum’s returns, including the Vishnu sculpture.
Disappearing Online Records Cause Concern
As the momentum for repatriation grows, so has recognition that institutions have a surfeit of problems when navigating the return process and acknowledging fault. The industry has strict ethics rules for deaccessioning artworks, including a provision requiring museums to preserve all records.
Yet in several cases when artifacts have been repatriated, the Met Museum has deleted posts from their online collection. The speed of these erasures has surprised some ethics experts, who described the disappearing posts as undermining transparency and thwarting community attempts to recoup their cultural heritage. In the Vishnu icon’s case, the webpage was removed even before the physical object left the museum gallery.
“It’s expected that you keep those records because it’s part of the provenance,” said Sally M. Yerkovich, who is leading revisions of the International Council of Museums’ ethics code, a project expected to complete in 2025. “The best practice is to disclose as much info as you have and as much as you feel comfortable sharing.”
Although returning looted artifacts can sometimes be embarrassing for museums, repatriation experts said that cultural organizations have a responsibility to keep the public informed about those decisions. Deleting web entries for repatriated artworks can obscure the historical record.
“We are public institutions that talk about holding our collections in the public trust,” Victoria Reed, a provenance curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, told ARTnews. “If we have a responsibility to move something from public view, we have a responsibility to explain to our audiences why.”
The Museum of Fine Arts upkeeps its online records, updating them with information about repatriations and why it happened. For example, a post for a terracotta sculpture that was repatriated in April 2022 includes a brief timeline about deliberations with the Malian government that started in 2013 and resulted in the object’s return.
Officials at the Met Museum have stood by their practice of deleting online entries, saying that its policies are made alongside curators, conservators, archivists, and legal counsel; however a spokesman said employees are now looking into the possibility of keeping repatriated artworks online, as other museums like the Boston MFA have.
That would be the least the museum could do, said Alisha Sijapati, director of the Nepalese Heritage Recovery Campaign. “Why delete it?” she asked in an interview. “It looks like they don’t want to take responsibility for what happened.”