Four antiquities, valued at more than $1 million, were recently returned to Nepal by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s Office, the office announced in a statement Monday.

The pieces returned to Nepal on December 4 include a large pair of gilt bronze Bhairava masks, dating to the 16th century, that are collectively valued at $900,000.

According to the Manhattan DA’s office, “the masks depict the god as Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity which also includes Brahma and Vishnu. They were used for ritual worship during the annual Indra Jātrā festival in Nepal. Both masks were stolen in the mid-1990s as part of a series of break-in robberies from the home of the family whose relatives created the masks. They were then smuggled to Hong Kong, sold at auction in New York, and subsequently entered the collections of the Rubin Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art until they were recovered earlier this year by the Office.”

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One of the Bhairava masks on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in 2022. Photo courtesy Erin Thompson

The items were matched using family photographs submitted to an anonymous whistleblower known online as Lost Arts of Nepal. “As far as I know, the first such match in Nepal,” Erin Thompson, a professor specializing in art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told ARTnews. Thompson submitted the tip from Lost Arts to the DA’s office in September 2022.

As part of the investigation, the DA’s office retrieved the police report filed by the family at the time of the thefts, and had it translated by a Nepali lawyer.

According to Thompson, the Bhairava masks are also not for people, but pots for beer, which would then be served to worshipers during the Indra Jātrā festival.

One of the other items repatriated to Nepal, a 10-armed Durga statue, was seized as part of the office’s investigation into convicted art trafficker Subhash Kapoor. According to the Manhattan DA’s office, the statue was allegedly smuggled out of Nepal “by the Zeeshan and Zahid Butt trafficking network, which was run by Kapoor’s alleged co-conspirators. The statue was then purchased from the Butts in Bangkok by Kapoor and subsequently trafficked into New York in the early 2000s, before it was recovered from a Kapoor-owned storage unit.”

Two of the four items, including a 10-Armed Durga Statue on the right, repatriated to Nepal on December 4, 2023. Photo courtesy Erin Thompson

The four items were returned to Nepal during a ceremony with Nepal’s acting New York Consul General Bishnu Prasad Gautam and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Special Agent in Charge Christopher Lau on Monday.

“The return of these illegally exported four masterpieces is a significant step in reclaiming Nepal’s cultural heritage and preserving its historical treasures,” Gautam said in a press statement. “This has deeply contributed to Nepal’s national efforts of recovery and reinstatement of lost cultural properties. The cooperation and collaboration between Nepal and the Manhattan District Attorney in this field, like in others, are deeply commendable and inspirations for the international community in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts.”

On December 4, the Rubin Museum issued a press statement acknowledging that it had placed the mask under review “with its collections team as well as independent researchers” after seeing the social media posts, then removed it from public view and posted public signage in the galleries about this process.

A notice at the Rubin Museum of Art about the temporary removal of its Bhairava mask, one of the items repatriated to Nepal. Photo courtesy Erin Thompson

The statement also acknowledged that the Manhattan DA’s office showed the museum “corroborating evidence the mask was stolen from a site in Dolakha in March 1994.” It reviewed the documentation, deaccessioned the mask, and voluntarily agreed to turn it over to the authorities.

The institution said it acquired the mask in 2005, with “no evidence of theft or unlawful removal from Nepal at the time of acquisition until evidence was provided by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office,” citing previous transactions on the art market, including a public auction at Sotheby’s in 1996.

“While we have treasured this exceptional mask and enjoyed sharing it with visitors in our galleries since 2005 as well as through several scholarly publications, the evidence presented is clear, as is our decision to return the work to Nepal,” Rubin Museum executive director Jorrit Britschgi said in a press statement. “We’re deeply sorry for the loss its removal has caused community members in Dolakha. We hope the work can return to its former location, yet also understand that the return will not remedy the wrongs that were done.”

The museum also announced it had committed additional resources through the appointment of Linda Colet as its new head of collections management and provenance research.

Provenance research in museums and private collections often focuses on scholarly books or photography archives to determine whether or not an object was stolen. For Thompson, the successful use of family photographs as proof of the Bhairava masks’ origins also demonstrates how repatriations are handled by foreign antiquities collections.

“I think that there should be a push toward museums and collectors to really think about returning things before that proof comes up, and not waiting until that happens,” Thompson said.