LOOTED TEMPLE: Prasat Thom temple at the Koh Ker temple complex in Cambodia’s Northern Preah Vihear province. The 10th-century temples were heavily looted during the 1970s. The Duryodhana and the Kneeling Attendants were taken from here. The statues have since been returned to Cambodia.
Cambodia filed a suit against Sotheby’s, claiming the auction house had agreed to sell a warrior statue known as the Duryodhana while knowing it had been looted from its pedestal during the 1970s. By Kate Bartlett
Cambodia, which was heavily looted of many of its cultural riches during the Khmer Rouge years and the turbulent civil war that followed, is making concerted efforts to get its priceless antiquities back.
The poor Southeast Asian nation has confronted the arts trade and is having more than a little success.
After going into a prolonged legal battle with the influential auction house Sotheby’s, a 10th-century Khmer statue which is valued at about US$3 million and was to be auctioned in the United States is instead due to be returned to Cambodia sometime in the next few months.
Anne Lemaistre, who heads Cambodia’s UNESCO office, which helped Cambodia with the Sotheby’s case, told DPA she was happy to see Cambodia win out.
“I hope it will have a major impact within the region, but also worldwide,” said Lemaistre with an eye to ongoing pilfering in war-torn nations such as Afghanistan and Syria.
Cambodia, with the help of the US government, filed a suit against Sotheby’s, claiming the auction house had agreed to sell a warrior statue known as the Duryodhana while knowing it had been looted from its pedestal during the 1970s.
The pedestal is still there at the remote Koh Ker temple complex.
In December, with legal wrangling continuing, Sotheby’s agreed to send the statue back to Cambodia.
Asked if Cambodia’s suit against Sotheby’s could mean the government, now emboldened, will pursue the return of further artefacts, Lemaistre said this has already been the case with the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
“It had already a domino effect, as the Metropolitan gave back on a voluntary basis two major sculptures... belonging to the same looted temple in Koh Ker, Prasat Chen, from which the Sotheby’s sculpture comes,” she said.
The Met returned the twin, sandstone, 10th-century Cambodian statues known as The Kneeling Attendants, or Pandavas, in June last year after conceding that they had, as Cambodia alleged, been looted.
“In total, nine sculptures were looted in this temple. Most of them are identified, some of them belong to Western museums which could decide to follow the Metropolitan’s exemplary gesture and give them back.
“Private owners could do the same also. We will welcome them with honours and a red carpet to thank them,” Lemaistre added.
The Cambodian government is now seeking the return of a Khmer statue similar to The Duryodhana from the Norton Simon Museum in California.
“We are still in negotiations,” confirmed Hab Touch, director general for tangible heritage at the Cambodian Ministry of Culture, declining to comment further on that case.
Of the Sotheby’s piece and the two statues already returned by the Met, Touch said preparations were under way to display them in Phnom Penh.
“We are still working on the transportation (of the Duryodhana) and of course this will be displayed at the National Museum,” he said.
“The Met statues are now at the National Museum in the workshop,” to be cleaned and re-secured to their pedestals, but will soon be ready for display, he added.
Cambodia is not the only country in the region that has sought the return of stolen antiquities, though it seems to be the one pushing hardest, and it has been having the most luck so far.
The Indonesian government has tried for years to have the country’s artefacts returned from foreign countries, especially the Netherlands, with little success.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said last year that many Indonesian artefacts are in the hands of foreign collectors and diplomatic efforts are needed to bring them back.
The Philippines has for years been trying to get back three 19th-century church bells that were taken as war booty by US occupation troops in 1901 from the town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar province.
In Nepal, efforts are under way to ensure two 12th-century Hindu statues are returned by France’s Guimet Museum after they were discovered to have been stolen, though the efforts to repatriate them originated in Paris and not in Kathmandu.
Last year China saw two Qing dynasty animal heads returned by a French billionaire collector. They had allegedly been looted by British and French troops when the Old Summer Palace in Beijing was burned down during the Second Opium War in 1860.
They were from a set of 12 Chinese zodiac animals cast in the 18th century. Many Chinese people have supported campaigns over the past decade to return all 12 of the heads to China, protesting whenever the heads were included in international auctions.
And in Thailand in 1988, the government managed to persuade the Art Institute of Chicago to return the Narai lintel, stolen from the Khao Phnom Rung ancient temple in north-east Buri Ram, after the issue developed ramifications for Thai-US relations.
While some art experts have questioned the wisdom of returning statues from world-renowned museums in the West to developing countries which might not have the facilities to look after such antiquities, Lemaistre of UNESCO said she had no concerns on that front.
“It is true that when a country is in a political turmoil and/or conflicts or faces major natural disasters, some pieces are better protected in safer places,” she said.
“But this is not the case any more in Cambodia: the National Museum in Phnom Penh offers all security and conservation guarantees and the pieces will be well conserved, following international standards.”
And, in the case of the Sotheby’s statue in particular, she said, Cambodians would have access to their heritage and it might also be a boon for tourism.
Tess Davis, an affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow who specialises in cultural heritage law, concurred.
“The art world is proof the colonial mentality is alive and well. Western collectors and museums dealing in looted art still portray themselves as its ‘protectors,’ when instead they are the very ones from whom it needs protecting.
“For they have created a market for stolen antiquities, and where there is a market, there will always be a supply,” Davis said.
Only last month, the New York Times reported the seizure of millions of dollars’ worth of trafficked antiquities, including items from Pakistan, India and Cambodia, from a warehouse in Queens belonging to a Manhattan gallery owner.
It seems Cambodia’s mission to reclaim its pilfered treasures — and end the trade in them — is far from over.