The Art Institute of Chicago’s Alsdorf collection is at the center of renewed scrutiny over repatriation claims.
Donated by Marilynn Alsdorf in 1997, the Alsdorf collection comprises some 500 antiquities from South and Southeast Asia, many of them displayed in a well-trafficked gallery of the same name that connects the Michigan Avenue building to the rest of the museum.
However, an investigation published jointly by Crain’s Chicago Business and ProPublica found significant evidence that at least four objects in the Alsdorf collection, all from Nepal, were looted. Incomplete provenance information was identified for 24 artworks from the collection, according to the investigation, more than any other collection at the museum.
Two artworks have been quietly repatriated since entering the museum’s holdings: a sixth-century Shiva statue stolen from a Nepal shrine in 1984 (returned in 2021) and a stone lintel depicting the god Vishnu, which disappeared from Thailand in the 1960s (returned in 1989). To date, at least nine Alsdorf-owned artworks across several museums and institutions have been repatriated after being identified as stolen, increasing scrutiny on the collection as a whole.
Alsdorf, along with her husband, James, is primarily remembered as a megawatt art patron in the city. The couple co-founded the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; at one time, James served as chair of the Art Institute’s board. In addition to avidly collecting 20th-century art, the couple began amassing South Asian artworks after buying a Nepali figure in Paris in the 1950s. At the time of Alsdorf’s donation to the Art Institute, seven years after James’ death, hers was among the world’s most expansive private collections of South and Southeast Asian art.
Marilynn Alsdorf died in 2019. As of a 2020 tax filing, members of the Alsdorf family still helmed the Alsdorf Foundation — including the Alsdorfs’ granddaughter Bridget Alsdorf, an art historian at Princeton University and a onetime vice president of the foundation. She and other members of the Alsdorf family did not return the Tribune’s requests for comment.
In a statement to the Tribune, an Art Institute spokesperson said the museum is “continuously engaged in provenance research and is responsive to repatriation requests.”
“As collecting standards have evolved over the decades, the Art Institute has evolved with them, adhering to the current best practices, and working diligently and proactively to both add to our existing research and make legal and ethical decisions. These are complex and nuanced issues and we, along with all other major museums around the world, are working to responsibly address these topics,” the statement reads in full.
The Art Institute displayed a similar statement as part of “The Language of Beauty in African Art,” an exhibit that closed last month. That disclaimer, too, was emphatic yet short on specifics. “Over the last few decades, institutions across the globe have increasingly scrutinized the circumstances surrounding acquisition of African objects, particularly during colonization, and the Art Institute is an active partner in these ongoing efforts,” it read in part.
Of the four contested Nepali artworks, the Art Institute’s catalog included publicly available provenance information for one of them: a 17th-century gilt copper necklace bearing a dedication to Taleju, a patron goddess for Hindus in Kathmandu Valley. The other three bear a placeholder noting that “object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge.”
That necklace is what first caught the eye of Sweta Baniya, a professor of rhetoric, professional and technical writing at Virginia Tech. She had heard about the collection, and the necklace in particular, from friends when she was a graduate student at Purdue University. She visited with her husband on June 10, 2021.
But when Baniya saw the relic up close, she was “overwhelmed.” Growing up in Kathmandu, she knew firsthand how well guarded Taleju Temple’s sanctity is — it is considered sacrilegious for worshippers to look at Taleju’s visage, and the public is permitted inside the temple just one day a year. Looking closely at the necklace, she could still see traces of vermilion pigment that indicated it was once used in worship.
“You cannot see anything of the goddess’s, but you can see this necklace so openly displayed. It was like a temple, but it was not a temple. It was very distressing,” Baniya says. “I didn’t know it was stolen — I hadn’t thought about that yet. But when I saw it, it just didn’t feel right.”
A few days later, Baniya posted a video of the necklace on Twitter, where it quickly gained traction via Nepali activists, press and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Baniya’s tweet tapped into a movement already well underway. In recent years, looted Nepali artworks have become lodestars for repatriation activism — not unlike the Benin bronzes, scattered across Western cultural institutions after the 1897 British invasion of Benin City, Nigeria. Though these seizures are less well documented than the Benin invasion, Nepali artifacts with 20th-century provenances are uniquely suspect. The reigning Rana dynasty pursued an isolationist policy that effectively barred foreigners from the region until it was overthrown in 1951, and Nepal has banned the export of culturally significant materials since 1956.
The highest-profile target of these ongoing demands in the U.S. is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whose slow response to repatriation claims culminated in multiple seizures by New York authorities in 2022. Just three records of the Met’s more than 250 Nepali and Kashmiri antiquities describe their object’s provenance in detail, according to a Guardian investigation published the same day as the Crain’s/ProPublica investigation.
After Baniya posted her initial video to Twitter, in Chicago, public outcry was such that she was convinced the relic “would be returned the next day.” More than a year and a half later, the relic remains on display in the Alsdorf galleries.
During that time, Baniya has written a letter to the Art Institute’s Arts of Asia department, handed out flyers next to the Taleju necklace’s display case and has spoken out about the push to repatriate the necklace. Even now, she says the extent of what she knows about negotiations to return the necklace, now ongoing, comes from the Crain’s/ProPublica investigation.
“(The Art Institute) owes us an explanation after remaining silent for many years about this,” Baniya says.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.