Buddhist monks bearing flowers chanted blessings and sprinkled sacred water. Government officials smiled. Everyone wanted to be present for the return of the statues.
Four decades after they were snapped from their pedestals in a jungle temple and secretly shipped out of the country against the backdrop of civil war, a pair of 10th Century stone statues known as the Kneeling Attendants and of intense cultural importance, were returned to Cambodia on Tuesday. It was the first instance of antiquities allegedly looted from the country being willingly returned by an institution, and experts say there could be thousands more.
“It was a very special occasion. This is the first time something that was taken has been returned to Cambodia,” said Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist who was present to see the arrival of the wooden crate containing the statues. “It’s very important that people in Cambodia know about these statues.”
The return of the life-size statues, which portray a scene from a Hindu religious epic, marks the end of a twisting tale that pitched the Cambodian authorities against one of the world’s most respected museums.
Last month, after intensive consideration and having dispatched its own experts to Cambodia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it would accede to the request of the government in Phnom Penh and return the pieces.
But the return of the sandstone carvings is just part of the story. Cambodia believes at least three other major US museums are holding improperly-obtained pieces and that the Met itself possesses another twelve. It is also involved in legal proceedings against Sotheby’s auction house over another statue. Globally, there could be thousands of such items.
The Kneeling Attendants have for the past 20 years stood either side of the doorway that opens into the Met’s South-East Asian collection, having been donated to the museum located on New York’s 5th Avenue in four pieces as separate gifts between 1987 and 1992.
But their original home was in the Prasat Chen, one of up to 180 sanctuaries spread out over 30 square miles at the Koh Ker archaeological site in the far north of Cambodia, 75 miles from the city of Siem Reap, where the famed Angkor Wat site is located. The Khmer city flourished between the years 928–944.
Experts believe the statues, and others from the site, were taken between 1967 and the mid-1970s, a period when Cambodia was engulfed in the fall-out of the war between the US and Vietnam and when the Khmer Rouge rebels were plotting their strategy in the jungle. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
After the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, launching a failed agrarian revolution that left 1.7 million people dead and triggering an invasion by the Vietnamese, the country became effectively shut-off for a decade.
When the Met announced its decision last month, it said it had obtained three of the four half-pieces from Douglas Latchford, an 81-year-old British arts dealer living in Bangkok, who had sent one piece via the London-based auction house, Spink & Son. The fourth was a gift from an American, the late Raymond Handley.
Mr Latchford could not be contacted on Tuesday, though he has previously denied any wrong-doing. A spokesman for Spink & Son said the inquiry related to an issue dating “a long time before our current ownership and current categories of expertise”.
The two Kneeling Attendants, whose empty plinths remain at Koh Ker, are said to represent two brothers from the Hindu Mahabharata saga, who are watching a fight. Yet they are not the only pieces missing.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the Cambodian authorities believe another statue from Prasat Chen, known as Bhima, is currently on display in the Norton Simon Museum in California. Another statue, known as Duryodhana, is at the centre of a legal battle between the Cambodian government and Sotheby’s, which in 2011, tried to sell the piece in New York.
Meanwhile, Cambodia alleges that two more pieces, originally from a temple located 200 metres from Prasat Chen, are being shown by the Denver Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
A statement from Norton Simon said: “For over thirty years, the museum has exhibited this important example of Cambodian art, and has had the privilege of showing it to representatives of the Cambodian government. We take these inquiries seriously, and are cooperating with the appropriate authorities.”
A spokeswoman for the museum in Cleveland, Caroline Guscott, said the museum had not been formally approached by the Cambodian authorities but declined to comment further. Ashley Pritchard, of the Denver Art Museum, said the piece in question was acquired in 1986 from a New York gallerist who had since died. She also said there had no formal approach from Cambodia.
“As with any object in our collection, the museum is committed to further research regarding history and provenance, and the Denver Art Museum curatorial team conducts provenance research on an ongoing basis,” she added.
Asked whether the Met was preparing to return the 12 other items that the Cambodian authorities claim it holds, Harold Holzer, a spokesman, said: “We initiated these specific returns based on new information gleaned from additional, and ongoing, research. The rationale for the returns applies only to these statues.”
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s denied that the Met’s decision would influence its upcoming court battle. In February, Sotheby’s identified the person looking to sell the piece as a European collector who purchased the work from a London dealer in 1975. “The Met’s voluntary agreement does not shed any light on the key issues in our case,” said a spokesman, Matthew Weigman.
In 1970, a UN convention banned trade in illicit antiquities and in 1993 the Cambodian government introduced its own legislation to prohibit the removal of cultural artefacts. Yet while the looting of Cambodia’s remarkable archaeological sites took place against a backdrop of war and chaos, experts say there is evidence it is still taking place.
Anne Lemaistre, the Unesco representative in Cambodia, said the theft of the items from Prasat Chen could be dated to around 1970. Yet she said looting of artefacts continued in the early 1980s and continues today.
“It’s outrageous. You can see temples that they have dismantled with dynamite,” she said. “There are heritage police patrolling the main areas and the Cambodian government is doing its best but I cannot say that the looting has stopped.”
The government of Cambodia welcomed the return of the statues. Spokesman Phay Siphan said: “It is a good sign that by being together we can suppress the looting of Cambodian artefacts.”
The move was also welcomed by members of Cambodia’s younger generation. “I am very sad to know such valuable arts that our ancestors made had been in the hands of other people, but I can’t deny that I’m ecstatic to know that they have been returned to the rightful owners,” said store-owner Bun Chamroeun, 26.
The Cambodian government said the returned statues will first be displayed at the offices of Prime Minister Hun Sen, where there will be an international Unesco meeting this month. It is likely they will afterwards be moved to Phnom Penh’s National Museum though there is also the possibility of moving them to a new institution closer to Siem Reap.
Will the return of the Kneeling Attendants mark the start of a flood of pieces back to Cambodia?
Ms Lemaistre said Unesco would be publishing details of 57 items believed to have been looted from a museum in Battambang. But she added: “In 1983, we published a list of one hundred pieces... Thirteen were returned.”