Ancient Cambodian statues back home from US art collections

Three figures looted during Cambodia's civil war returned from gallery and auction houses in US

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 10:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 4:03am


Three 1,000-year-old statues depicting Hindu mythology are back home in Cambodia after being looted from a temple during the country's civil war and put in Western art collections.

The pieces were handed over on Tuesday at a ceremony attended by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and US diplomat Jeff Daigle after being returned by the US branches of Sotheby's and Christie's, and the Norton Simon Museum in California.

Cambodian officials say the statues were looted in the 1970s from the Koh Ker temples complex in Siem Reap province, also home to the Angkor temples complex.

A 1993 Cambodian law prohibits the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission. Pieces taken after that date have stronger legal standing to compel their new owners abroad to return them.

But there is also general agreement in the art world that pieces were acquired illegitimately if they were exported without clear and valid documentation after 1970 - the year of a UN cultural agreement targeting trafficking in antiquities.

The three statues are representations of the mythological Hindu figures Duryodhana, Balarama and Bhima.

Their return marks a step forward in efforts to bring back together nine figures that once formed a tableau in a tower of the temple, showing a famous duel in Hindu mythology.

Two statues from the same temple that had been displayed for nearly two decades at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were returned to Cambodia last November.

Experts say that looters hacked the Koh Ker figures off their bases during the civil war. Some were apparently smuggled out of the country and ended up with collectors or in museums.

The Cambodian government is asking other museums to return such objects. Sok An said the handover ceremony was "to welcome these three heroes back where they belong".

"In a long 40-year journey, surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and travelling the world, these three have now regained their freedom and returned home," he said.

The Norton Simon Museum has displayed for nearly four decades its 1.52 metre-high sandstone figure of Bhima, which is missing its hands and feet. It said last month it had acquired the statue from a reputable dealer in 1976, but that the chaos of war in Cambodia made it unclear how the dealer had acquired it.

The Pasadena, California museum announced in a statement that it was returning the statue "as a gesture of friendship, and in response to a unique and compelling request by top officials in Cambodia to help rebuild its 'soul' as a nation".

Sotheby's agreed to return the footless figure of Duryodhana, valued at US$2 million to US$3 million, which was placed in Sotheby's catalogue in 2011 after the widow of its former Belgian owner gave it up for sale. Sotheby's later pulled it from its catalogue.

The auction house agreed to surrender the statue, settling a lawsuit filed by the US on Cambodia's behalf.

Daigle, deputy chief of the US embassy in Cambodia, said over the past two decades, 97 Cambodian artifacts had been repatriated from the United States.