VMFA’s collection of Nepalese artifacts in question

To Mary Slusser, it was “never-never” land: an unexplored world where beauty married the mundane. Slusser, a recently arrived wife of an attaché with the U.S State Department, wandered Kathmandu’s streets in awe, dipping in and out of ancient Buddhist monasteries and marveling at her luck in life to be posted in an “open-air museum.”

Her love affair with Nepal morphed into a career of scholarship. Slusser became the pre-eminent translator of Nepal to the West, earning the equivalent of a knighthood from the Nepalese monarchy for “outstanding contributions” to the Himalayan mountain country.


The Virginia Museum of Fine Art South Asian art gallery, Himalayan Room in Richmond, Va. May 2.

At the same time, Slusser began collecting artifacts, buying what she could from dealers who sought her out — a white foreigner with a disposable income. Sacred Buddhist artworks, some hundreds of years old, seemed to find their way to her.

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“Kids brought us a tiny bronze Siva-Parvati figure which I’m sure they had just stolen,” Slusser wrote in her typewritten diaries in 1967. “It is really a very sweet piece and I don’t think the temple will miss it at all.”

Half a century later, her trove of Nepalese art primarily resides in museums in the United States, including at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, which was given first dibs at her estate when she died in 2017. The collection includes masterpieces that were likely removed from the country illegally. Art repatriation activists and Buddhist monks from the Kathmandu valley are calling for their return.

Illuminated Manuscript Folio Showing the Five Cosmic Buddhas

Nepalese art piece titled Illuminated Manuscript Folio Showing the Five Cosmic Buddhas hangs in the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in the South Asian art gallery in Richmond, Va. May 2. The piece arrived at the VMFA by way of Mary Shepherd Slusser.

Last December, the museum returned 44 stolen antiquities to different corners of the world. The collection included ancient Roman marbles and ancient Greek vases. The pieces were sold to the museum by shady dealers across Europe.

The museum’s collection from Slusser — some 241 statues, manuscripts and holy figurines — has not yet been claimed by law enforcement agencies as the returned antiquities were. So far, museum curators denied an independent request for one artifact’s return, saying they are waiting for an official, evidence-backed request from Nepalese authorities. Two are currently on display.

“Our director is saying this all the time. If it doesn’t belong to us, we don’t want it here,” said Jan Hatchette, a spokesperson for the VMFA. “But we have to have a claim.”

Nepal Stolen Art

A 16th century statue of Hindu deity Uma-Maheswora, that was stolen four decades ago and later repatriated is paraded in a chariot before reinstating the same at the premises of a temple where it belonged in Lalitpur, Nepal, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. The idol had somehow ended up at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which handed over the same to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office paving way to its return to Nepal.

Nepalese seek artifacts return

At least two groups in Nepal are requesting the return of Slusser’s collection.

The first is a group of monks from a 1,500-year-old monastery south of Kathmandu. The monastery boasted a 16th century painting known as the “Pictorial Pilgrim’s Guide.” A month after Slusser’s first visit to see it, the painting was being shopped around by a local Nepalese dealer on the back of a bicycle, according to Slusser’s diary.

Slusser said she wanted to save it.

“Already in lamentable condition, the bundled-up painting daily became more degraded as it was trundled around town on the back of a bicycle in search of a prospective customer,” Slusser wrote in her diary. “This important painting otherwise seems to have been slated for an ignominious end in someone’s dustbin.”

Pictorial Pilgrim's Guide

A 16th century painting purchased by Mary Shepherd Slusser in 1967 and later removed from Nepal. Monks at a monastery near Kathmandu are requesting the painting’s return.

Luca Powell

The VMFA’s curator of South Asian art, John Henry Rice, describes the painting as a “masterpiece” that is both art and historical document. It’s been on display and loaned out to museums across the United States.

In 2021, a group of monks from the monastery requested that the VMFA return the painting, which is known in Nepalese as a “pauba.”

“Two of our most senior monastic community members recognized the Pauba on your website. They confirmed that it did belongs (sic) to our monastery,” wrote Asha Ratna Shakya, the chairman of the monastery’s preservation committee. “Knowing where the Pauba is, we would like to humbly request you to return it to us.”

The museum pursued an alternative option: paying for a $45,000 replica, which the monastery said it would accept.

But talks for that option broke down when lawyers for the VMFA requested that the monastery relinquish its claim to the original as part of the deal.

“Both sides went ‘legal’ at this point,” as Rice later described in an email to a graduate student, Andrea Wollein, who facilitated the request. The conversation was “abruptly shut down” when the monastery was asked to relinquish its ownership claim to the original, which the monks would not accept.

Letter from Yampi-Vihara Monastery requesting the return of "Pilgrim's Guide" from the VMFA

Letter from Yampi-Vihara Monastery requesting the return of “Pilgrim’s Guide” from the VMFA.

A group of art repatriation activists are also hoping to open talks with the VMFA over Slusser’s works. The group, the Nepali Heritage Recovery Campaign, has successfully returned more than 40 Nepalese pieces from museums abroad.

The group locates Nepalese pieces abroad, then submits claims through the Nepalese government’s Department of Archaeology, who then transmit the claims to museums.

Roshan Mishra, a volunteer with the campaign, said he appreciated that museums kept pieces of Nepal’s cultural heritage safe. But times have changed, with Nepal emerging from decades of strife-ridden monarchic rule in 2008. Since then, the people of Nepal, with the help of social media, have become more aware of their lost art.

“If we’re talking about being ethical, now is the right time to start this conversation,” said Mishra, whose day job is directing the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu.

A Nepalese man holds a repatriated statue of a god

A Nepalese man holds a repatriated statue of a god.

The group has yet to formally request the return of Slusser’s pieces from the VMFA. The campaign’s efforts began in 2021, inspired by a Facebook page called “Lost Arts of Nepal.” The page, run by an anonymous internet sleuth, routinely identifies suspect Nepalese artworks at museums and collections around the world.

Sanjay Adhikari, a lawyer who volunteers his time with the campaign, says the theft of artifacts from Nepal has left a psychological tear in the communities from which they’ve gone missing. Unlike repatriated European art, Nepalese artifacts are considered living gods.

In February, worshippers in Nepal celebrated the return of masks and idols from the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The return of artifacts are regularly cause for celebration at the monasteries from which they were removed.

“They are not a dead thing,” said Adhikari. “It’s a part of our living culture. Every time a piece is stolen, our community goes into a gap. That’s why we keep on telling museums, it’s not something that should be in a sterile, room-temperature environment. People need to worship them everyday.”

Statue repatriated to Nepal

A Nepalese woman prays to a recently repatriated god.

In a 2023 email released via a Freedom of Information Act request, VMFA curator Rice wrote to a colleague at Harvard that the “Nepalese aren’t demanding the return of most of these things. It’s the NY Assistant DA, being fed leds by these same ‘researchers,’ who is hunting things down and foisting them upon the Nepalese authorities.”

Rice later said he thought the emails were private.

“I don’t know what he’s talking about. But I am a citizen of Nepal and I want it back. The government wants it back. The future generations of Nepalese have a right to their cultural property,” Adhikari said.

Claims test Nepalese law

The campaign says that Slusser’s exports from Nepal were illegal. In 1970, museums around the world signed onto ground rules prohibiting the export of illicit art. Pieces before 1970 must have strict “provenance” – histories that traces an artifact from the display case to its point of origin.

Nepal, wary of foreign influence, had even stricter rules on exporting art. The country was closed to the outside world until 1951. In 1956, the Nepalese monarchy issued a decree prohibiting cultural exports without permission.

Slusser’s diary entries show she was aware of those regulations. She exported an initial batch of artifacts to the Smithsonian by way of the Army Post Office, which she had access to through the U.S. Embassy, and typed out her concern with Nepalese customs agents.

Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi with Their Retinue

Nepalese art piece Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi with Their Retinue hangs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in the South Asian art gallery in Richmond, Va. May 2. The piece was originally purchased by Mary Shepherd Slusser.

A 1968 profile on Slusser in the Washington Post states she was only collecting “materials they use in their daily lives, rather than valuable art objects, whose removal is frowned on by the government.”

The strength of that law is currently being tested by the Rubin Museum in New York City, which is fighting to hold onto a Nepalese statue acquired by Slusser’s sister.

The Rubin Museum has contested the claim and argued that the 1956 law didn’t take effect until 1969, when it was publicly announced in a Nepalese newspaper.

The case is being brought in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office – the same prosecutors responsible for seizing the VMFA’s classical antiquities in 2023.

“I figure it’s only a matter of time before they work their way down to Virginia,” Rice wrote in another email.

In an interview, Rice and Michael Taylor, chief curator at VMFA, said they are not opposed to returning Slusser’s collection, but they won’t do so without a formal claim backed by evidence of theft and supporting research. Taylor says the museum’s track record has been ethical, most recently with the antiquities surrendered in 2023.

Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director of Art and Education of VMFA

Dr. Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director of Art and Education of VMFA, speaks at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA., on Thursday, June 15, 2023.

Emails show that it was Taylor who volunteered one of the most valuable pieces: an Etruscan marble of a young boy, despite investigators from Manhattan not asking to review the piece originally. The statue, worth north of $250,000, was ultimately removed from active display to be repatriated.

Taylor described Slusser’s diary entries as “chilling.” 

Slusser’s collection has received no such requests from the Manhattan DA, said Taylor, who explained that the VMFA can’t begin bending its standards to informal claims from communities around the world.

“It can’t just be a letter from a graduate student,” said Taylor. “That was not a claim.”

Taylor said if a formal claim were made by the Nepalese government – such as for the monastery’s “Pilgrim’s Guide” – he wouldn’t fight its removal. “That’s my promise,” said Taylor. “I won’t stonewall it.”

Professor Erin Thompson

Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Thompson is an adviser to the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign and wrote a 2023 academic article that raised questions about the collecting practices of Mary Shepherd Slusser.

The VMFA’s position frustrates art expert Erin Thompson, a lawyer and professor of art crime at the City University of New York. Thompson is an adviser to the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign and published a 2023 article that raised ethical questions about Slusser’s collecting practices in Nepal.

“Museums often reply with a similar argument, that they are waiting for an ‘official request’ as if there are magic words that have to be spoken in order to prompt their action,” said Thompson.

“And in this case, it seems particularly ridiculous to say you are waiting for an official request when the community who lost the piece has made its desire to have it back known.”


Virginia Museum of Fine Art visitors view pieces of art in the South Asian art gallery in Richmond, Va. May 2.

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