Cambodia Calls for Return of Khmer Antiquities

After the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to send back a pair of 10th-century statue, Cambodia wants U.S. museums to give up all antiquities that the Southeast Asian country says were looted during its bloody civil war

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TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP/Getty Images

Prasat Chen Temple

A new round of art repatriation is happening in the United States. American museums and private collectors are giving back prized antiquities following foreign governments’ claim that the treasures were looted from their archeological sites. In the past six months, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have all sent back ancient items of Italian origin. Now, Cambodia’s Khmer antiquities are at the center of the great giveback. After New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided in early May to return two looted statues, Cambodia is calling for Americans to follow the Met’s lead and send back all ancient artifacts that they “unlawfully” or “illegally” possess, the New York Times reports.

(More: Herakles, Weary No More: Boston Museum Returning Top Half of Famous Statue to Turkey)

The Southeast Asian country believes that hundreds of Khmer antiquities that thieves stole from its ancient temple complexes during the bloody 1970s civil war era are now in the United States, according to the National Public Radio. The two 10th-century statues that Met would return next month are from Prasat Chen, a more than 1,000-year-old site now hiding in the jungles of Koh Ker, which is about 180 miles northwest of Phnom Penh and capital of the Khmer empire during King Jayavarman IV’s rule. The statues, the “Kneeling Attendants,” had flanked the doorway to the museum’s Southeast Asian galleries after they were donated separately in 1987 and 1992. U.S. officials have found proof that the statues were indeed looted from Prasat Chen, where a dozen sculptures illustrating Hindu epics used to stand but six of them, including the Met ones, have found their way into the United States, according to the Times.

(More: In Cambodia, China Fuels Deadly Illegal Logging Trade)

Cambodian officials want the rest of the six antiquities returned. Thanks to the 1970 UNESCO Convention that aimed to curb antiquity trafficking, most museums have refrained from buying antiquities without clear provenances. But Cambodia says it has traced three of the statues to the Denver Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Norton Simon Museum in California.

“We must not stay silent. We must reclaim the statues by any and all legal means,” Cambodian archaeologist Phin Samnang told NPR. “If we don’t take action, it means we do not love our antiquities which have been looted and taken overseas.”

Another one, the sandstone Duryodhana warrior statue, is currently subject of a federal lawsuit. The life-size sculpture, which depicts the Hindu Mahabarata scene where Duryodhana and Bhima face off in battle, is held by Sotheby’s, which withdrew it from a 2011 auction after Cambodia complained. The auction house said it got the statue legally and Cambodia’s claim couldn’t be approved. According to Cambodia’s Office of the Council of Ministers, a delegation from the U.S. Attorney’s office arrived in the country in February to collect evidence. Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sok An said the legal battle with Sotheby’s is very “tough” and the U.S. is doing a “very noble task.”

According to the Times, the value of Sotheby’s piece is estimated to be between $2 million to $3 million. Terressa Davis of the Heritage Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of Southeast Asian cultural heritage, writes that Sotheby’s has auctioned about 348 Khmer artifacts between 1988 to 2005 and 80 percent of those pieces have no clear ownership history.

While Cambodia applauds the repatriation of the Met statues, many collectors worry that Phnom Penh’s “forceful” request would “threaten the future of collecting and collecting museums,” especially in wake of the Sotheby’s case. In a letter to the Times, Barbara Newsom, founder of the Archaeological Conservancy, argues that the ancient artifacts wouldn’t have survived without the care given in western museums and the governments that “carelessly” let them go should be grateful that they are kept intact. But Mark V. Vlasic, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, wrote in a CNN opinion piece that the art world must consider what is “ethically acceptable.” He says Sotheby’s has a choice to either treat Cambodia’s request as obstacles or a chance to right the past wrongs. “For all of humanity that finds these treasures important,” he writes. “Let us hope that they choose wisely.”

(More: Cambodia: Reality TV Reunites Families Torn Apart by Khmer Rouge)

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