“Vishnu Flanked by Lakshmi and Garuda” (11th century, Thakuri period), stone, 19 1/4 x 14 1/4 inches (all images courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced yesterday, October 3, that it will return an 11th-century sculpture and 13th-century temple strut to Nepal. The Upper East Side institution formalized the imminent transfer via a signed agreement with the Nepalese government.

The two artworks are just the latest Met collection objects to be repatriated in recent years amid investigations into museum artifacts that may have been looted from their countries of origin or acquired under otherwise questionable circumstances.

“Nepal’s living culture is an outstanding example to the world,” a spokesperson for the repatriation advocacy group Lost Arts of Nepal, which has worked on the repatriation of several objects Nepalese objects in North American collections, told Hyperallergic. “The gods can resume their place of worship, even after decades of exile, once they arrive home.”

The 13th-century temple strut

The Met purchased the strut — a carved wooden beam that adorned the exterior of a temple — in 1988 and received the stone sculpture, a depiction of the god Vishnu flanked by the goddess Lakshmi and the eagle Garudam, as a gift in 1995. Neither work is currently listed on The Met’s website, but an old catalogue listing for the Vishnu carving, since removed and accessed via the WayBack Machine, noted that the work was donated by Evelyn Kossack through the Kronos Collection.

At this stage, the museum has not provided Hyperallergic with additional information about the origins of the two works. Per a press release issued yesterday, the museum and Nepal determined that the works should be returned “upon receiving new information from colleagues in Nepal.”

According to Lost Arts of Nepal, the stone sculpture of Vishnu with Lakshmi and Garuda was taken from Bungamati Village in Lalitpur between 1982 and 1984.

Looters in Nepal ran rampant in the final quarter of the last century, leaving behind headless statues and empty pedestals. Communities in Nepal have continually advocated for the return of their cultural heritage, some of which has been replaced by replicas while originals sit in other nations’ museums and private collections. The museum returned another temple strut to Nepal last year that had been removed from a Buddhist monastery, and in 2021, it repatriated a 10th-century stone sculpture of Lord Shiva and two disciples that had been looted from a temple in Kathmandu. The museum handed over a 10th-century stele and 12th-century statue to Nepal in 2018.

Lost Arts of Nepal told Hyperallergic that the group has two pending repatriation claims at The Met: a 15th- to 16th-century stele showing Vishnu above the deity Garuda and a 16th-century polychrome statue of goddess Nrytyadevi. The museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment on the claims.

“The Met values the long-standing relationship we have fostered with the Government of Nepal, and we are committed to continuing the ongoing and open dialogue that is underway regarding Nepali works in the collection,” a museum spokesperson said.

The Met has relinquished antiquities to a host of other nations. In March, the museum returned 15 looted objects to India and three to Turkey, in cooperation with ongoing legal investigations. 

Other artifacts have been seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in connection with ongoing investigations into suspected trafficking rings. Last spring, authorities removed five Ancient Egyptian antiquities from the museum worth over $3 million. A few months later, The Met surrendered 21 ancient Greek and Roman objects and a 6th-century Hindu statue. The string of high-profile returns drew heightened scrutiny of the museum’s collection practices, and a March report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that over 1,000 objects in The Met’s collection were linked to antiquities smugglers. In May, the institution announced it would hire a supplemental provenance research team led by a head of provenance research. The position has yet to be filled.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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