A sacred Nepali necklace linked to Kathmandu’s Taleju temple has been in the collection of a Chicago museum for decades — and Nepal’s government wants it back. On Monday, ProPublica and Crain’s Chicago Business co-published an extensive report on the piece, alleging that the necklace and at least three other Nepali artifacts donated to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) from the Alsdorf collection were looted from the nation as it prohibited the export and trade of cultural property in 1956.
According to the inscription, King Pratap Malla (1624–1674) gifted the necklace along with an assortment of precious offerings to the Hindu goddess Taleju at the Taleju Temple in the courtyard of the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex for Malla royalty. In 1970, the Nepali government had the necklace and other antiquities moved to the Hanuman Dhoka museum for improved safekeeping, but the relic disappeared in 1976. That same year, James and Marilynn Alsdorf, collectors of South and Southeast Asian antiquities, acquired the necklace from Bruce Miller Antiquities in Sausalito, California and loaned it to the AIC until it was formally donated in 2010. The necklace is currently on display in the Art of Asia department in Gallery 141.
During the summer of 2021, Sweta Baniya, a Nepali assistant professor at Virginia Tech, encountered the necklace on display at the AIC and was overwhelmed with emotion and disbelief. The Taleju temple is only open to the public once a year, but the necklace was on display for anyone to see at any time. Baniya took to Twitter to share her thoughts, generating traction online and even catching the attention of the Nepali government, which initiated the repatriation process that August.
After Baniya’s tweet made its rounds, Slok Gyawali of the Nepal Pride Project, a “voluntary movement to track and repatriate Nepal’s stolen heritage,” reached out to the AIC’s collections department twice via email and left multiple voicemails about the looted necklace, but he claims the museum never followed up with him.
“AIC has known about this issue for years,” Gyawali lamented in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “We have communicated our concerns with available evidence to them repeatedly, but have been stone-walled and shrugged off repeatedly. Based on my experience, when the Art Institute spokesperson says they take ‘all repatriation requests extremely seriously,’ there is no reason for me to believe them.”
According to the ProPublica and Crain’s Chicago Business report, the Nepali Embassy in Washington, DC sent a letter of request for repatriation to the AIC along with an archeological report indicating that the necklace was stolen and smuggled out of the temple in the 1970s, likely through the help of an on-the-ground accomplice.
“Nepal has formally forwarded its request to the Art Institute of Chicago for repatriation of the artifact to Nepal so that this important historical and cultural artifact finds its place where it belongs to,” a spokesperson for the Nepali Embassy told Hyperallergic, citing the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The museum responded a month later stating that it took the matter “very seriously” and would begin looking into the provenance of the necklace. In May of 2022, the AIC followed up with the Nepali government asking for additional records pointing to the necklace’s origins and ownership, to which a spokesperson for the museum stated that the government has not yet responded to.
The Nepali Embassy clarified to Hyperallergic that communications regarding the necklace are only taking place between the museum and the Nepali Department of Archeology. The department did not immediately respond to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
The Nepali Department of Archeology told ProPublica and Crain’s Chicago Business that they’re still looking for records to support the repatriation request, but the “irrefutable” proof of origin is literally inscribed on the artifact. “Victory to the Mother Goddess,” the inscription reads alongside the king’s name.
Last June, Taleju temple high priest Uddhav Karmacharya discovered a scroll in the temple’s basement that documented the inventory of King Pratap Malla’s gifts to the goddess including a necklace with an inscription that matched that of the necklace at the AIC. Karmacharya turned the document over to the Nepali government for further consideration, but there have apparently been no updates since the museum correspondence in May 2022.
When asked about the scroll, Katie Rahn, a spokesperson for the museum, told Hyperallergic over email that the AIC “is open to learning about any additional information the Nepali government can share.”
Activists, art historians, and other such experts say that the Department of Archeology is at a disadvantage in terms of resources when it comes to requests for repatriation from large-scale museums such as the AIC. However, the embassy told Hyperallergic that the department is “doing its job to the best of its ability in that capacity.”
“In recent years, the government of Nepal has successfully repatriated many such artifacts from the United States,” the spokesperson for the embassy concluded.