The country Nepal wants a sacred necklace returned. The Art Institute of Chicago used its charm to entice a local benefactor into buying a rare collection of Asian artifacts.
It organized a major exhibition to showcase Marilynn Alsdorf's collection of South and Southeast Asian art and published an elegant catalog to commemorate the occasion. A longtime Alsdorf friend was even hired as a curator by the museum.
It was "like a card game or a minute … a little dancing," Alsdorf described it at the time.
That hard work paid off. Alsdorf announced in 1997 at a Woman's Board party that she would be leaving the Art Institute with approximately 500 objects from Nepal, India, and other countries, saving the museum millions of dollars in building such a collection.
In 2008, the Art Institute of Chicago dedicated the Alsdorf Galleries to Marilynn and her late husband, James.
However, the Alsdorf collection, which was once so desired, has increasingly become a problem for the Art Institute, as it faces ownership history questions that call into question the museum's commitment to keeping its galleries free of looted antiquities.
Insufficient Provenance Of Alsdorf Collection At The Art Institute And Alleged Illegal Export Of Nepali Artifacts
According to a national online registry of museum pieces, twenty-four objects from the Alsdorf collection at the Art Institute have insufficient provenance by modern standards. There are gaps in no other single collection at the museum that is listed on the registry.
Aside from that, ProPublica and Crain's Chicago Businesshave identified at least four Alsdorf pieces at the Art Institute that may have been looted from Nepal and illegally exported.
Among them is a gilt-copper necklace with semiprecious stones and intricate designs that a 17th-century Nepali king presented to a Hindu goddess. The Nepali government and activists are calling for the necklace, which is still on display at the museum, to be returned.
The dispute over the ownership of that necklace has dragged on for nearly two years, causing frustration in Nepal. "I don’t know what else they want," said Alisha Sijapati, director of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, which seeks to repatriate stolen objects and has brought the case to light. "The more they delay, it’s damaging to their reputation."
Crain's and ProPublica also discovered that at least nine additional pieces once owned by the Alsdorfs have previously been returned to Nepal and other countries — a pattern that some art historians believe should prompt the museum to conduct a more thorough and public examination of the couple's collection.
Two of the pieces were returned with the help of the Art Institute: a decorative stone beam from a temple in Thailand that had been donated to the museum and a sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva from Nepal that had been on loan.
The other items were from the Alsdorfs' personal collection, and one was from another museum.
While some museums have taken a more aggressive approach to remove looted artifacts, ProPublica and Crain discovered that the Art Institute lags behind. When other museums in the United States discover a problem or return an object, they post information online; the Art Institute does not.
Some museums also keep a public record of repatriations online, including the names of collectors who loaned or donated the contested piece; the Art Institute does not.
According to an Art Institute spokesperson, the museum strives to thoroughly research the objects in its collection and adheres to industry best practices for vetting ownership history or provenance.
The Art Institute takes all repatriation requests "extremely seriously," according to Katie Rahn, a spokesperson. "Repatriation discussions can be exceptionally complex and can take significant time, but every effort is made to resolve these matters as quickly as possible."
Concerns about the Alsdorf collection are growing at a time when museums are under fire for failing to return stolen objects and even Native American remains that are still in their possession.
According to art historians and other experts, negotiating with a large, world-famous museum like the Art Institute is especially difficult for a developing country like Nepal.
Nepali officials have expressed concern that the country's Department of Archaeology, which conducts research on looted objects, is severely understaffed and that coordination between government agencies can be slow.
Melissa Kerin, an associate professor of South Asian and Tibetan art and architecture at Washington and Lee University said:
Legally, the burden of proof is on the victim. They’re the ones already living without the object, but they’re the ones who have to pull together a legal team. We’re talking about a developing country.- Melissa Kerin
Because of its history of political unrest, Nepal is especially vulnerable to looting; hundreds of sculptures, paintings, and other spiritual objects have been stolen from the country since 1960 when it began opening its borders to tourism.
Sculptures depicting deities, as in much of South Asia, are thought to be inhabited by those gods rather than mere inanimate idols. The worshippers are stunned by their absence.
Activists with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign claim to have discovered photographs of three objects in their original locations in Nepal before the Alsdorfs allegedly purchased and donated them to the Art Institute: a wooden sculpture of the goddess Tara, a stone carving of Buddha, and another stone sculpture of Shiva.
Rahn stated that the museum is aware of the photos and is investigating the provenance of those objects, but that not all of the photos match the museum's pieces. The Nepali government has not initiated requests for the repatriation of those objects.
The Art Institute's last written communication from Nepal about the necklace, according to Rahn, was in May 2022, and the museum is still waiting for more information.
The Archaeology Department is "coordinating" with the Art Institute, according to Nepal's embassy in Washington, but activists say the museum has requested records that may not exist or would be difficult to obtain.
The Art Institute declined to comment on whether it has conducted a thorough review of the Alsdorf collection since Marilynn's death in 2019. The Alsdorfs' donations were vetted by the museum when they were acquired, according to Rahn, but those internal policies have evolved — and been strengthened — since then. "If new information emerges for any object, we conduct further research," she said.
According to Rahn, the Art Institute established three positions "primarily dedicated" to provenance, including a curator who oversees these efforts across the institution. According to her, two of the positions were created in July 2020, and the third in February 2022, as "research became a higher priority for the museum."
Rahn also stated that the museum formed a task force of "senior curatorial and legal leaders" last year to help prioritize provenance research, but she would not provide further details. She stated that the museum is "considering" posting information online about objects that may be returned in the future.
Despite the fact that both Alsdorfs are no longer alive, efforts to preserve their legacy are ongoing. According to interviews and records obtained by ProPublica and Crain's, Marilynn Alsdorf's trust has required the country to agree not to identify the Alsdorfs as the owners in any press releases or other public announcements as part of four recent returns to Nepal.
When given the opportunity in April 2021 to identify Marilynn Alsdorf as the owner of an object the Art Institute was assisting in returning to Nepal — the Shiva that had been on loan there — museum officials declined in ArtNews, a major art newsorganization.
The Art Institute, on the other hand, was not a signatory to the confidentiality agreement.
“This is all hush hush — very intentionally so,” Kerin said. “It’s protecting the system.”