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Amateur art detectives used modern tools and the law to return stolen artifacts

: [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: While the Rubin is shuttering its building in New York City, it plans to continue to operate as a museum of traveling exhibitions and digital offerings.]


When two holy masks were stolen from a Hindu temple in Nepal, the family who owned them thought they were gone for good, but they were actually on a 30-year journey. Planet Money's Erika Beras has the story of where those masks ended up.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: These two ornate masks had been in Yagya Kumar Pradhan's family for 500 years, and when they were stolen, he knew why.

YAGYA KUMAR PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) There not taking them to worship. They're all stolen to take overseas, right? Because foreigners are willing to buy them, people steal them.

BERAS: He thought he'd never see them again. But two years ago, a relative reached out to an anonymous group called Lost Arts of Nepal. They scour museum websites, looking for stolen items. The group posted pictures and tagged a few people, including Erin Thompson.

ERIN THOMPSON: I'm thumbing through my phone, and I see on Facebook a photograph pop up - well, two photographs, actually.

BERAS: Erin is an art historian and lawyer and an amateur art detective. And the two photos she saw - one was an old family photo of Yagya's stolen mask. The other was of a gleaming mask in a museum a few blocks from Erin's apartment, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. So Erin went to check for herself.

THOMPSON: I got to the case and took some dignified, normal photographs just standing up and then found Lost Art's post to see the angles of the family photographs and then started ducking and weaving to try and recreate those angles.

BERAS: At that moment, Erin knew.

THOMPSON: This is the same object. There's no denying it.

BERAS: Erin also traced the other stolen mask to the Dallas Museum of Art, and she found evidence that one had been sold at one of the big auction houses. But there usually aren't names attached to auction sales.

That seems a little odd to me. How do you not know who sold it and bought it?

THOMPSON: The whole point of the auction house is to conceal who sold and bought it.

BERAS: OK, so there's no way of knowing, then.

THOMPSON: There's no way a member of the public can know that. The only people who can know are authorities, who can subpoena the records of the auction house.

BERAS: Erin knew that the authorities would want proof that the mask was actually stolen. Now, markets for stolen objects exist as long as there is supply. So some countries have passed what are called patrimony laws to cut off the supply that say, for the most part, objects that are culturally significant aren't allowed to be sold and exported from a country.

THOMPSON: So Nepal banned the export of these type of ritual sacred cultural goods in 1956, which is before they were of desire to collectors in the West. Whenever you see a sacred artifact from Nepal outside of Nepal, you know it's not there with the consent of Nepalis.

BERAS: When the Rubin Museum acquired the mask, it came with an official report which said there was no evidence the mask had been stolen. But Yagya had reported the masks stolen, and he even had police reports. Erin sent everything - the police reports, the evidence from the auction house, the photographs - to the authorities. They did their own investigation and approached the museums with all their evidence. And both museums said, yeah, these masks should go back to Nepal. Yagya had never stopped thinking about the masks, and now, after 30 years, they are back home in Nepal.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) We hadn't even imagined having those returned.

BERAS: He says his family is building a new temple where these masks will be kept. For now, they're at the National Museum in Kathmandu.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) There's a Nepali saying that even the river changes its direction in 12 years. So the return of this idol after 30 years proves that such things can be returned back if you can find the source.

BERAS: And as for the Rubin Museum, they recently announced they're closing their doors. Erica Beras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.