Nepal became a country of fascination when it opened its borders to foreign visitors in 1951. But as Westerners increasingly drew inspiration from its artistic and religious traditions, Nepal’s sacred artworks began to vanish. Nepali cultural activists have recently located dozens of sculptures of deities in American museums and private collections, matching them to photographs of the artifacts in active worship in temples and shrines in Nepal in the 1970s – before they were stolen and smuggled out of the country to feed the new fashion for “Eastern spirituality.” Some of these photographs were taken by American scholars who played an uneasy role in facilitating these thefts, believing Nepalis were incapable of preserving their own heritage.
Having served in an advisory capacity in some of the recent repatriation claims, I will discuss the relevant legal landscape as well as negotiation and media strategies applicable to claims for antiquities, sacred art, and other stolen cultural heritage from the region and beyond. I will also ask what our role as art historians can and should be in fields built from histories of cultural exploitation.
Erin L. Thompson holds a PhD in Art History and a JD, both from Columbia, and is an associate professor of art crime at John Jay College (City University of New York). She studies topics including the black market for antiquities, the deliberate destruction of art, and the production of art by detainees at the United States military prison camp known as Guantánamo Bay. Besides traditional scholarly publications, she has written for general audience publications including The New York Times, Paris Review,Hyperallergic, Smithsonian Magazine, and bitch, and has spoken on CNN, NPR, BBC, TEDx conferences, and the Freakonomics podcast. She has curated curating several exhibits of detainee artwork, is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, and was a Fellow at the Rice University Humanities Research Center from 2017-2018 and a Public Scholar of the New York Council for the Humanities from 2015-2018. Her first book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors (Yale University Press) was named an NPR Best Book of 2016. Her second book, Smashing Statues: On the Rise and Fall of American Public Monuments, will be published by Norton in February 2022.