A piece in the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) Asian collection is causing controversy amongst art historians and concerned citizens of Nepal. The object in question is a 30-and-three-quarter-inch-tall tablet depicting Shiva, a revered Hindu deity, and his wife Parvati, along with their children and other attendants. Nepalese Hindus refer to images of the embracing couple as Uma-Mahesvara; the DAM curator calls it “Uma-Maheshvaramurti.”
According to the DAM’s website, Dr. and Mrs. Edwin F. Ullman gifted the piece to the museum in 1980. The tablet was part of Ullman’s parents’ collection—according to the DAM, the couple purchased it from Sundaram Works of Art and Handicrafts, a shop in New Delhi, India, in 1968. Kristy Bassuener, director of communications and public affairs for the DAM, told 5280 that the museum does not have any further facts to share about the piece prior to that date.
Research conducted by other parties may fill in that gap. Stolen Images of Nepal—a book by Lain Singh Bangdel, a leading historian of Nepalese art—compiles photos taken of artwork, especially statues of deities, found in Nepal’s Valley of Kathmandu in the early 1950s. Each of the items pictured in the book subsequently disappeared from Nepal. On page 77 of the book is a photo of the Uma-Mahesvara in Gahiti, a neighborhood in the historical city of Patan in Nepal. According to Bangdel, the limestone piece was made in the 10th century and stolen from Gahiti in the mid-1960s.
The alleged theft was part of a pattern. “Nepal is a fascinating case because you can track how tourist access to the country corresponds with the loss of cultural heritage,” says Erin Thompson, an art historian who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York in New York City and specializes in art crimes. For centuries, Nepal rarely allowed outsiders to visit the country, writes Bangdel in Stolen Images of Nepal. But when the borders opened to visitors in the 1950s, pieces of art previously found in villages, temples, shrines, and more began to disappear.
“Many of these statues were worshipped for centuries and beloved by their communities,” says Thompson. Indeed, when Alisha Sijapati, a journalist for the Nepali Times, visited Gahiti in 2020 and showed elders there the DAM’s photos of Uma-Mahesvara, they recognized the deity. In fact, Gahiti residents had preserved the base of the statue, Sijapati writes in her recent article about stolen objects.
Western museums have long profited from artwork, icons, remains, and other items settlers and collectors stole from other cultures. Last year, 5280 detailed significant changes in museum curatorial practices: Many institutions in Colorado now actively work to repatriate items, returning them to the people or culture from which they were originally stolen.
“If a museum has reasonable suspicion that it holds stolen or looted objects, then it has an obligation to investigate,” Chip Colwell, former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and editor-in-chief of SAPIENS magazine, told 5280 in an email. The Code of Ethics provided by the American Alliance of Museums, a nonprofit that’s advocated for museums and helped to develop ethical standards and best curatorial practices since 1906, requires members to ensure “collections in its custody are lawfully held, protected, secure, unencumbered, cared for, and preserved.” The DAM is a member of the Alliance.
On January 20, 2019, Slok Gyawali sent an email to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) about the Uma-Mahesvara. Gyawali is from Nepal, but currently lives in Portland, Oregon on a student visa. He founded the Nepali Pride Project, a group that tracks stolen Nepalese items and advocates for their return to their communities of origin, because he wanted to do something positive for his native country. In his email correspondence with the DAM, the entirety of which Gyawali shared with 5280, he explained the research showing that the deity had been stolen. He wrote: “Given these circumstances, we humbly request you to share the detailed provenance for the religious object in question. We hope to work collaboratively with Denver Art Museum in understanding the circumstances in which this object was acquired, and finding a solution that works best for the museum, the people of Nepal, and devotees in the Patan community.”
On February 15, 2019, a member of the DAM’s communication department replied with the same provenance information that’s available on the museum’s website. Later that day, Gyawali replied asking for further information: “We are curious to know what due-diligence Denver Art Museum undertook when it acquired this piece from the Ullmans in 1980.”
After a follow-up email from Gyawli on February 27, 2019, the same spokesperson responded on March 6: “Thank you for your response, which prompted us to review our file in its entirety regarding the referenced piece. Having now taken the time to do so, we continue to have confidence in the propriety of the provenance of the piece. Though we had been aware of the Stolen Images of Nepal publication, we are unaware of any substantiated claims of theft of this piece; indeed, other publications discuss the piece without reference to theft. Other than such publications, we likewise can tell you in response to your Feb. 15 email request that the file contains no ‘internal discussions about its theft and Denver Art Museum’s responsibility’ (and we are aware of none) prior to your inquiry.”
Gyawali was disappointed by the correspondence. “I felt let down,” he says. “There’s a huge conversation about being respectful and addressing historic wrongs, and you’d expect an institution that tries to educate people, like an art museum, to step up and do the right thing.”
In response to 5280’s inquiries about the Uma-Mahesvara, Bassuener sent an email with the following statement: “The Denver Art Museum has in its collection ‘Figure of Uma-Maheshvara’ from the 10th century. The stone piece was gifted to the museum in 1980 by a couple that had held the statue since 1968. The piece was on display in the museum’s Asian art galleries until the Martin Building closed for renovations in November 2017. The origin of cultural property is a significant and serious topic for the Denver Art Museum, and museum staff conducts ongoing research to learn additional facts about objects in its collections. To date, the Museum has received no official inquiries about this piece.”
Bassuener later clarified: “Official repatriation inquiries into an object would be from a government or potential owner of the object. To date, the museum has received no official claims or requests for the return of this piece.” Representatives from the DAM declined to be interviewed about further research undertaken by staff into the provenance of the Uma-Mahesvara.
Colwell believes the DAM is obligated to look into the potential theft. “So, if I tell you that you’re driving a stolen car, that means you don’t have to worry about it until the victim of the theft finds you, investigates your car, then makes an ‘official’ claim? You bought the stolen car; you should look into it,” he said via email.
Both Thompson and Colwell say that requiring inquiries to come from a government or potential owner is misguided. “It is neither respectful nor diligent to ignore information about a stolen object simply because it was brought to the museum’s attention by a concerned third party,” Thompson said via email. “To listen only to ‘official’ requests would be to put the burden on the understaffed, overstretched cultural departments of countries trying to reclaim their heritage from around the world.”
Gyawali, for his part, says he is not deterred. He and the other volunteers with the Nepal Pride Project are now working to get documentation from Nepalese police confirming that the Uma-Mahesvara had been stolen from the people of Gahiti. The team then hopes to get the Nepalese government involved, along with members of Nepal’s diaspora. “It’s not something we are going to let go,” Gyawali says. “This is very important to us, and we are going to continue fighting.”