When 16-year-old Sunil Shrestha came home from festival celebrations on the early morning of August 30, 1995 in Dolakha, Nepal, he immediately realized something was off. He was used to sleeping in the worshipping room of the family home, sharing the space with an impressive 37-inch gilded statue of Vajradhara. The family had served as caretakers for the 16th-century statue for hundreds of years. But now, it was missing.
Sunil ran to get his father, who was working with his eldest son in a restaurant two and a half miles away. When they came back, police took Sunil and his father in for questioning. They both still bear scars from the physical torture inflicted on them. Nepal was not yet a democracy, instead it was being torn apart by armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and government forces — a period marked by human rights violations. Sunil and his father were both released, but police did not follow up on any other leads to trace who was behind the deity’s theft.
Because of the volume of the statue, one would need at least two people to carry it away. In their haste, the thieves left behind the statue’s crown, aureole, and other accessories. At the time of the theft, only Sunil’s mother, seven-year brother Anup, and grandmother were home. Clearly, the theft was staged, as the thieves knew exactly when they would be able to enter and exit the family home undetected. But because the police did not properly investigate the case — one of so many instances of cultural heritage theft during a period of extensive looting in Nepal — it was impossible to prove the family’s innocence.
For the past 28 years, the Shrestha family has had to bear the guilt and shame that came with the deity’s burglary. Their community and extended family ousted them, accusing them of selling the statue for financial gain.
On September 15, 2022, Lost Arts of Nepal, an activist group focused on the identification and repatriation of foreign-held Nepali cultural objects, posted a photo of the Vajradhara deity in the Shrestha house — and next to it, a screenshot of a statue consigned to a Hong Kong-based dealer being offered for sale online. The statues were identical, except for a crown that had been replaced. The Dolakha deity had been found.
Making a repatriation claim to a private or public collection is always a sensitive issue and never straightforward. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to these cases — sometimes there is overwhelming evidence of looting and other times there is no documentary evidence aside from a witness statement and a moral argument for return. In the case of the Vajradhara, there were reports, publications, and photographic evidence that proved the statue was taken from Nepal after the country passed the 1956 Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, a national patrimony law prohibiting the trade and export of any cultural object, making the statue stolen property. Still, that did not guarantee its return. The statue was located in Hong Kong, a global city known for its (illicit) art trade due to a lack of relevant laws, making a governmental repatriation claim potentially challenging.
However, upon hearing the news that their statue may have been looted, the owner of the Vajradhara got in touch with their dealer, who then contacted me to request mediation between the different stakeholders. The owner was willing to voluntarily return the deity to the people of Nepal on the condition that they remain anonymous. As a result, the stunning statue was officially handed over to the Hong Kong Consulate of the Government of Nepal last week, on May 5 — an auspicious, and very fitting, day when the Nepalese celebrate the religious holiday Buddha Jayanti.
This case is one of many recent examples of private collectors voluntarily returning cultural objects to their countries of origin. The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign is regularly contacted by private collectors who are proactively seeking to return artworks in their holdings to Nepal. They may not have been aware of the exact circumstances of the removal of items in their collections. But as more source countries raise their voices to reclaim their cultural heritage, there is a growing public awareness of the extensive looting, the intergenerational harm of colonial violence and foreign exploitation, and the demands for the repatriation of Asian cultural objects. Hopefully, this will change the no-questions-asked approach that so many in the global art trade have taken in the past, prioritizing legality and morality in their quest to satisfy a passion for beautiful objects.
The Vajradhara example also shows how some repatriation cases are better handled with discretion and “behind-the-scenes” mediation rather than a public social media campaign to put pressure on current owners. Moreover, it highlights the responsibility of academics like myself, who are in a unique position to bridge the gaps between the communities of origin we work with and the art market. While academics might previously have benefited from the trade in looted cultural objects, their expertise can now be used to right past wrongs.
The Shrestha family cannot wait to welcome back the deity in their new home after their old house collapsed in the 2015 earthquake. “It is not only our deity that is being returned, but also our dignity,” notes the youngest son, Anup. When the Vajradhara returns to the Shrestha household, it will be reconsecrated and its crown and other accessories reinstated. It can then once again function as the central deity of the Indra Jatra festival, worshipped by the entire Dolakha community.
UPDATE 6/23/23: The Vajradhara sculpture was returned to the community on June 3, 2023.