The stolen Bhairav masks, and the art detectives who helped return them to Nepal : Planet Money About thirty years ago, Yagya Kumar Pradhan woke up to the news that the temple he and his clan used had been broken into. The temple had been ransacked. And someone had stolen two holy Bhairav masks. Yagya says they had been in his family for more than five hundred years – since the 16th century.

Yagya is a kind of Hindu priest for his clan. And he says, these Bhairav masks were very holy. People made offerings to them during Dashaun, a festival held in the fall.

Yagya thought the masks were gone for good. He didn't realize... they were hiding in plain sight.

On today's show: The story of a group of amateur art detectives who use modern tools, subterfuge, and the power of the law to return stolen artifacts to their rightful owners. And we dive into the world of high-end auctions and art museums to ask: Can the art world survive the legacy of cultural theft?

Clarification: This episode has been updated to clarify that the reason the Rubin Museum is shuttering its building is not directly linked to repatriation.

This episode was hosted by Erika Beras and Nick Fountain. It was produced by James Sneed, edited by Jess Jiang, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez, and engineered by Cena Loffredo. Alex Goldmark is Planet Money's executive producer.

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The case of the stolen masks

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One morning 30 years ago, Yagya Kumar Pradhan was in his village in Nepal. He was washing his face at a communal spigot when he got some terrible news.

YAGYA KUMAR PRADHAN: (Through Interpreter) I was washing my face when someone told me the temple doors had been broken down.

BERAS: The locks were busted, and someone had broken into their private Hindu temple.


Yagya called the police. When they arrived, they all went into the temple together. Things were overturned. Some were broken. It was a total mess.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) Small pieces of idols were scattered all over. Hands were missing, and legs were missing from some of the small idols.

BERAS: And as he looked around, he realized...

PRADHAN: (Through Interpreter) They only took the masks.

BERAS: Two masks had been taken, stolen. Yagya is kind of a Hindu priest for his clan, and these two masks had been in his family for more than 500 years - since the 16th century.

FOUNTAIN: They're called Bhairav masks. Bhairav is a protector god, a caretaker of female gods and energy. These two masks were ornate. They were a few feet tall. They were coated in copper. They had skulls and snakes winding through their hair. And these huge bulging eyes.

BERAS: And when Yagya was a kid, these masks kind of terrified him.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) I was 6 or 7 years old when I saw them for the first time. We didn't look at them. We were scared of their big, big eyes. Sometimes, I'd hide behind my parents and take a peek.

BERAS: These masks may have been scary, but they were important - very holy. People made offerings to them.

FOUNTAIN: Yagya says that during the fall festival, they would pour beer through the masks' mouths, and people would gather underneath to get a sip.

BERAS: But now, these holy masks had been stolen, and Yagya knew why.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) They're not taking them to worship. They're all stolen to take overseas, right? Because foreigners are willing to buy them, people steal them. These kinds of valuable cultural properties are only made in Nepal.

FOUNTAIN: Yagya assumed the masks were gone for good, but that was not the case. These two masks were actually hiding in plain sight. And the question was, what would it take to bring them home? Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain.

BERAS: And I'm Erika Beras. Yagya's stolen masks would go on a 30-year journey around the world. They'd be smuggled across continents, sold at auctions, and eventually, they'd end up in fancy museums.

FOUNTAIN: Today on the show, the case of the stolen masks. It's the story of a group of amateur art detectives who use modern tools, subterfuge and the power of the law to return stolen artifacts to their rightful owners and who are part of this movement that is dramatically changing the way museums and the art world actually work.

BERAS: In the decades after Yagya's masks were stolen, the case had gone cold. Yagya had run out of leads. But then, in 2022, one of his relatives was online, and he found a network of amateur detectives. They scour pictures on museum websites and try to match those pictures to items that have been stolen from Nepal. The group is called Lost Arts of Nepal.

FOUNTAIN: So Yagya's relative reached out. He sent Lost Arts of Nepal photos of the stolen masks, and they posted them online and tagged a few amateur art detectives, including Erin Thompson.

ERIN THOMPSON: So I'm in the kitchen waiting for the bagels to finish toasting and 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 while most people go to museums to take in art, Erin's hobby is to go to museums to look for stolen art.

I have this image of your kitchen wall just looks like, you know, the red tape, and you're like, aha, there it went, and there it went.

THOMPSON: Well, it's not so much the kitchen wall filled full of string. It's the intense spreadsheeting of I found this piece of information in this archive and that one in another one. I'm currently tracking hundreds of objects brought out of Nepal.

FOUNTAIN: Which brings us back to those Facebook photos Erin saw when she was toasting her bagels. The two photos were posted by that group, Lost Arts of Nepal. One was an old photo of the Bhairav masks from Yagya's family. And the other? Well, the other was a photo of a mask in a museum. And that museum? It was just a few blocks away from Erin's apartment.

BERAS: Yes, the Rubin Museum of Art. Erin knew it very well, especially their gallery of Nepalese art.

THOMPSON: So you walk into the gallery, and bam, there's Bhairav. He is the boss of the gallery, a showstopper, a spectacular masterpiece of the museum.

FOUNTAIN: Erin knew the Bhairav mask, but was it the same one as in the Facebook post? She had to go check for herself. She finishes her bagel, heads to the museum. It's actually not open yet. But when the door is open, she runs right to the Nepalese gallery.

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

BERAS: ******* Do you feel like anybody was looking at you like, what is that - what is she doing? What is that woman doing?

THOMPSON: Oh, 100%. But museum visitors can do some weird stuff. So I figured I was just one of the many weirdos in a museum that day.

BERAS: Right then and there, Erin knew.

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

FOUNTAIN: Now, Erin has been in this situation before. She's found dozens of pieces of stolen art and helped bring some of them home to their rightful owners. And she says there's a process.

THOMPSON: We could have approached the museum and said, hey, here's a photo, and they probably would have said, OK, we're sending it back right away.

BERAS: Really? Does it ever work that cleanly? Like, that the museum sees it and goes, oh, yes, oops. Here you go. Here's this object.

THOMPSON: Well, yes. But if you want more information to build a picture of how these objects were stolen, how they were laundered and got fake paperwork, who is involved in buying and selling them, so sometimes you don't want the objects as much as you want the information.

FOUNTAIN: Now, up until this point, Erin had just wanted to reunite Yagya with his stolen Bhairav masks. And she had the evidence to do that. But at this moment, she decides she doesn't just want to get the masks back to Yagya. She also wants to make sure that this never happens again. And to do that, she needs to uncover the smuggling network that led to the theft in the first place and shut it down forever.

THOMPSON: For an object to transform from stolen goods into an artwork that can be displayed to museum visitors takes a whole system of conservation, restoration, auction houses, dealers, etc.

BERAS: Erin teams up with Lost Arts of Nepal, which, by the way, is a very secretive organization. We don't know if it's, like, one person, if it's many people. But they told us they want to remain anonymous. And that might be because speaking out could make them a target for smugglers.

FOUNTAIN: In order to make a case againstp, say, a smuggling ring, Erin and Lost Arts of Nepal are going to need to gather lots of evidence, evidence that they'll end up giving to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. There, they have an entire unit called the Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

THOMPSON: So the DA's office will want evidence that this wasn't a sale. You know, did somebody regard this as an old-fashioned tchotchke they didn't want anymore, so they might as well sell it to some tourist or some foreign dealer and make some money?

FOUNTAIN: So Erin starts tracing where the mask at the Rubin Museum came from. And her partners at Lost Arts of Nepal start trying to figure out what happened to the masks in Nepal.

BERAS: Erin learns a few things. This mask was actually part of a set. The other mask appeared to be at the Dallas Museum of Art.

FOUNTAIN: And she finds evidence that one of them had been sold in the year 2000 for $85,000, and it was at one of the big auction houses, Christie's.

BERAS: Auction houses - you know, the paddles flying into the air, people bidding on jewels and rare champagnes. Lots of artwork passes through auction houses. The two big ones are Sotheby's and Christie's.

THOMPSON: A lot of people think, oh, if it's sold by a big auction house by Christie's or Sotheby's, it must be legal for me to buy. It must be an unproblematic object. But that's just not true 'cause the auction house only makes money if it sells the objects. And if it has to say, oh, sorry, these were stolen, they don't make money.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. The auction houses make money when they facilitate sales. And most of the time, there are no names attached to those sales.

BERAS: 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 says to think of the way cultural artifacts in the U.S. are bought and sold as don't ask, don't tell.

FOUNTAIN: Right. So she puts together a case file with all the evidence that she and Lost Arts of Nepal have gathered so far, the photos of the masks and evidence that one had been sold at Christie's, which will be helpful to the Manhattan DA's office. They can subpoena Christie's for info about the seller and the buyer.

BERAS: And Erin also knows that the DA's office will want incontrovertible proof that the mask was indeed stolen. And here, there's a particular type of law that can be very helpful.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, a little background here. Markets for stolen objects exist as long as there is supply. So some countries have tried to cut off the supply of these stolen objects. They've passed what are called patrimony laws, which say, for the most part, objects that are culturally or historically significant are not allowed to be sold and exported from a country.

BERAS: So, like, even if someone owns something, they cannot sell it abroad because it's not legally allowed to leave its home 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. And it wasn't until the '60s and '70s that you have the fad for sort of "Eastern spirituality, " in scare quotes, yoga, tofu and these beautiful objects. So they start to get stolen. They start to get smuggled out of Nepal. Whenever you see a sacred artifact from Nepal outside of Nepal, you know it's not there with the consent of Nepalis.

BERAS: Now, museums are, of course, aware of this law. But smugglers will forge paperwork to show that the object left Nepal before 1956, which makes the object look legit. And indeed, when the Rubin Museum acquired the mask, it came with an official report which found that the mask had not been reported as stolen.

FOUNTAIN: But Yagya had reported the mask stolen. When his family's temple was broken into, and he called the police, they had written up a police report. And Yagya, he had kept the report for nearly 30 years.

BERAS: Erin adds the police report to the case file along with the photos of the masks and the evidence from Christie's. She sends it all to the Manhattan DA's Antiquities Trafficking Unit. And the next day, she gets an email back. They basically say, we're interested in opening an official case.

FOUNTAIN: After the break, what happens next in the case and what this all means for the future of museums. *****

********* Museums have been dealing with the problem of stolen antiquities quite a bit. Recently, there have been thousands of objects identified as stolen and eventually returned to their home countries.

BERAS: Can museums survive this?

BEN DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I...

BERAS: That does not sound very convincing.


FOUNTAIN: This is Ben Davis. He's a longtime critic at Artnet News and the host of the podcast "The Art Angle."

BERAS: Ben says right now the art world is rethinking their whole system for acquiring art and antiquities. For a time, museum directors describe themselves as kind of pirates, going out into the world, collecting its treasures, and bringing them into Western galleries. But that's not really the vibe anymore, and some institutions are struggling with that legacy, which can be a huge problem.

DAVIS: There's a snowball effect where certain kinds of questions that are asked lead to other kind of questions that are asked, and they feed off of each other to the point where it really does feel like a new moment.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. It's not just about Nepalese art. It's about Nazi-looted art and Native American art. Art from so many places.

BERAS: And Ben says the reckoning happening in the art world boils down to three big problems for museums.

DAVIS: One is diplomatic problems.

BERAS: Right. This is not, like, a good look.

DAVIS: It's not a good look.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. A nation calling up a museum and saying, hey, by the way, you have some of our stolen property. Can we have it back?

BERAS: OK, that's problem one. What is problem two?

DAVIS: Problem two is economic.

BERAS: Lots of museums are nonprofits, and it's hard to fundraise when you're regularly getting investigated and having objects seized. And that leads to problem number three. It's hard to get people to want to work in an environment that is under this kind of legal and cultural scrutiny. I mean, we're talking looted property, perpetuators of colonization.

DAVIS: That makes the museum a less cool place to work. You're going to be associated with, you know, the worst aspects of Western culture.

FOUNTAIN: And museums are trying to find solutions. Some have hired staff whose only job is to look at where exactly their items came from and decide whether they should keep them.

BERAS: And one museum, at least, has come up with a more dramatic solution to these three problems. The museum that had Yagyas Bhairav mask, the Rubin Museum, has decided to close their doors later this year.

FOUNTAIN: They say they're going to become a museum of traveling exhibitions, lending out pieces here, bringing exhibits there. But, yeah, no more physical museum anymore.

BERAS: And the Rubin says this change doesn't have anything to do with how things ended up with the case of the stolen masks, which is this. After Erin sent all that information to the Manhattan DA, they got to work. They worked backwards, tracking the masks from the museums, this time with subpoena power.

FOUNTAIN: The one that ended up at the Rubin, turned out, came from a private French collection. Before that, it had been sold at Sotheby's, and at some point before that, it had passed through Hong Kong. The other mask, the one in Dallas, that one also came from a private collection, and it also passed through Hong Kong.

BERAS: Hong Kong is one of the places where stolen art can get forged papers and leave Asia.

FOUNTAIN: Now, no one has been prosecuted for trafficking the masks yet. We reached out to the Manhattan DA's office. They didn't want to be interviewed, but they told us their investigation is still ongoing.

BERAS: Which brings us to the last leg of the journey for Yagya's masks. A year ago, the DA's office approached both museums with evidence that the masks had been stolen. And they both said, yeah, they should go back to Nepal.

FOUNTAIN: A few months ago, the DA's office held a repatriation ceremony in New York City.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are receiving them today, and we feel the lost guards...

BERAS: That's an official from Nepal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I convey deep gratitude and our most appreciation from the government and people of Nepal and the consulate general to the district of Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

FOUNTAIN: And big news - yagya's masks are now home in Nepal after their 30-year journey.

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

BERAS: Yagya never stopped thinking about the masks. Sometimes he'd see similar-looking Bhairav masks in magazines from abroad.

PRADHAN: (Through interpreter) I've collected pictures of gods and goddesses, and I used to wonder where they could be. If a foreigner gets them, they would surely keep them private in a showroom or a museum.

FOUNTAIN: He says his family is building a new temple where these masks will be kept. And in the meantime, you can see them 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: Yagya says when the new temple is built, a stronger lock is going in, and they're going to put in a guard system.


FOUNTAIN: James Sneed produced today's episode. It was edited by Jess Jiang and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Tsering Bista did the voiceover work. Engineering by James Willetts. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

BERAS: Prava Adhikari and Pragati Shahi were our interpreters. Also, special thanks to Sanjay Adhikari and Roshan Mishra. I'm Erika Beras.

FOUNTAIN: I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thank you for listening.


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