PHNOM PENH - New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned two massive Angkorian statues to Cambodia.
Officials here say they are grateful to the US government for their help in the return, and for pursuing an ongoing court case to have another statue, currently housed at the auction house Sotheby’s, returned.
The Met recently returned two statues known as the Kneeling Attendants, which had been on prominent display at the museum since 1994 and were thought to have been looted from the country during wartime.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is fighting a lawsuit brought by the US Justice Department for the seizure of a warrior statue called Duryodhanna, which the US claims was trafficked from the Prast Chen temple of the Koh Ker complex in Siem Reap province.
At a handover ceremony in Phnom Penh last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the decision by the Met demonstrated “the high professional standard of ethics of the museum.”
The 10th-Century statues, named Sahadeva and Nakula, arrived in Phnom Penh last week, following an announcement by the Met in May. They are thought to have been stolen from the country during the tumultuous war years of the 1970s.
Emily Rafferty, president of the Met, attended the ceremony.
“Although they were given to the Metropolitan Museum 20 years ago, when reports of new research into Koh Ker site became available to us, we concluded that the figures should be transferred to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” she told attendees.
Tess Davis, an antiquities lawyer and researcher at the University of Glasgow, has worked with Cambodia to combat the illicit trade of its antiquities.
“The Met’s decision is very admirable, and we should give them great credit for doing the right thing and not waiting for a lawsuit or court order, but just doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” she told VOA Khmer in an interview.
Addressing a crowd of about 1,000 participants at the opening of a Unesco World Heritage conference in Phnom Penh this week, Hun Sen extended his gratitude to the US government for its efforts in the Sotheby’s case.
Sotheby’s had planned in 2011 to sell the Duryodhanna for $3 million on behalf of a private collector, but it was ordered by a US court to halt the auction while the case plays out in the courts.
Cambodia and the US government maintain that the statue was stolen during wartime and should thus be returned as national property. Sotheby’s has said the providence of the statue remains unknown and that it legally has the right to auction it off. A trial is expected to begin later this year.
Davis said the case highlights the efforts of many countries as they seek the return of their national heritage from powerful interests.
“Sotheby’s in particular is very powerful and a very rich corporation, and it made itself rich at the expense of countries like Cambodia,” she said. “It’s using the millions that it made off countries like Cambodia to fight the Cambodian and the United States governments to keep them from bringing statues like these home, so it’s going to be a hard fight. But Cambodia has the truth on its side and the law on its side, and I’m optimistic and confident that Cambodia would succeed in the end.”
Davis said that any museum with Cambodian art in its collections should follow the Met’s lead and send the antiquities back.
“Now that Cambodia’s conflict is over,” she said, “it’s time for them to come home.”