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  • The Ongoing Quest to Return Nepal's Looted Cultural Heritage
  • Emiline Smith (bio)

Nepal's living cultural heritage is under continuous threat from looting, theft, and trafficking. As a result, many of its cultural objects have ended up in foreign private and public collections. Now, activists both from within and outside of Nepal are collectively demanding their return. Contested cultural objects should always be repatriated to their rightful owners when claimed, but those possessing these contested cultural objects should also proactively seek other ways to work towards restorative justice.


Cultural objects can be admired in countless museums, galleries, and dealerships around the world. Many visitors walk around these spaces, never wondering whether the communities from which the cultural objects on display originated know that they are there, have access to them, or are comfortable with their exhibition. Many were taken by colonial powers or acquired through other unethical or illegal means, and so these cultural objects continue to be symbols of colonial violence, injustice, exploitation, and exclusion.

For centuries, cultural objects have been looted, stolen, and trafficked—ending up in private and public collections far removed from their communities of origin and worship. In the process, these communities are denied access and agency over their own material culture. For example, demand for "exotic," "oriental," or "Asian art" has caused the extensive looting and trafficking of sacred Asian cultural objects. Although strict legal frameworks are in place to protect cultural objects, they continue to be ripped from pedestals, chiseled from carved walls, or stolen from inner shrines, eventually ending up for sale on the international marketplace. These are not art objects that should be for sale. They are living cultural objects at the core of ongoing worshipping practices involving festivals, rituals, dance, food, stories, and other expressions of the rich cultural diversity of the Asian continent. They belong both legally and morally in their countries of origin, and so many are demanding their return.

The repatriation of cultural objects has gained momentum since the Second World War. Initially, restitution efforts for Nazi-looted art raised questions around the meaning and shape of restorative justice. Further debates around the possession and display of sacred indigenous cultural heritage in North America and Australasia provided a broader understanding of its importance to individual and cultural identity as well as how (living) heritage and culture should be defined. Such debates are emotive topics, inciting powerful sentiments regarding individual and collective identity, morality, and belonging. This is reflected in several relevant UNESCO Conventions recognizing culture and cultural diversity—including its tangible and intangible aspects—as a human right.1 More recently, it was the publication of the ground-breaking Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage that reignited the debate around display, custodianship, and ownership of (colonial) looted cultural objects.2 Private and public dealers and collectors around the world are now taking long-overdue steps to engage with the problematic narratives that surround their collections.

For decades, countries of origin have requested the return of their cultural objects. These repatriation claims are based on law: national legislation and international agreements, such as [End Page 264] the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which facilitate the protection and repatriation of a nation's cultural heritage and prevent its illegal removal, export, import, or trade. However, they are also based on ethical arguments: the desire to right a past or ongoing wrong. This makes repatriation claims extremely difficult, as countries, institutions, and individuals are rarely willing to admit wrongdoing.

In the past year, Nepal has accelerated its pursuit for the repatriation of its foreign-held cultural objects. Social media have been particularly helpful in connecting activists, local and abroad, to pressure museums and other collectors to return the looted deities, worshipping items, architectural elements, and other cultural objects in their possession. Policymakers, experts, activists, and law enforcement both from within and outside of Nepal have united to make a wave of repatriation claims and with success, as dozens of objects were repatriated to Nepal from various countries in 2021. But more needs to be done by the international...