With New Book, Quest to Recover Stolen Battambang Statues Begins

The Ministry of Culture released a book on Monday of about 68 Khmer sculptures that were stolen from museums in Battambang City during decades of war and conflict, and intends to use the publication in a global search to recover the artifacts.

The result of a painstaking investigation by a restoration team from the National Museum assisted by the French School of the Far East (EFEO), the book proves that, until the early 1970s, the sculptures were at the Battambang Provincial Museum or the Wat Po Veal Museum.

The Khmer artifact collection at the Wat Po Veal Museum was greatly damaged in the 1970s, as this early 1980s photo demonstrates. The head of this statue was later stolen. (CDCAM)
The Khmer artifact collection at the Wat Po Veal Museum was greatly damaged in the 1970s, as this early 1980s photo demonstrates. The head of this statue was later stolen. (CDCAM)

“We want, first of all, to alert the owners of these pieces that what they have is illegally owned: This belongs to the national inventory of Cambodia,” said Anne Lemaistre, country representative for Unesco, which supported the book project.

She said Unesco would send the book to Interpol, the International Council of Museums, all museums with Khmer artwork and cross-border art dealers.

In the book, “Missing Objects from the Wat Po Veal and Battambang Provincial Museums,” each page includes a photograph of one object and information about its size, style and era.

The sculptures date from the 6th century to the post-Angkorian period.

Producing the document took the National Museum’s conservation department about two years. The first task was figuring out what still remained in the collections, said Huot Samnang, a deputy head of restoration in the department.

As civil war intensified in the early 1970s, museum authorities moved parts of the Battambang collections to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, he said. So the department had to determine which objects were still in Battambang, and which had been sent to Phnom Penh.

One crucial source of information was a collection of notes and photos compiled by Madeleine Giteau of the EFEO, said Bertrand Porte, a stone restoration expert and the school’s representative in Phnom Penh.

Ms. Giteau was charged with setting up the two Battambang museums in the 1960s. She took scores of photos and detailed notes about the museums’ collections, creating two sets of records: one for the EFEO in Paris and one for the National Museum in Phnom Penh. For the new book, the restoration team worked with both archives, Mr. Porte said.

Research for the book is already bearing fruit, said Kong Vireak, the Culture Ministry’s director of museums. A missing 11th-century sculpture was identified at a Christie’s auction in Paris and the ministry is taking steps to retrieve it, he said.

[email protected]

© 2016, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.