Two pre-Angkorian statues looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in the 1970s are to be returned to Cambodia by auction house Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum in the U.S., the two institutions said on Tuesday.
The announcements coincided with a trip to New York by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An to repatriate a third statue looted from the same site, in what is now Preah Vihear province.
Christie’s said it would return a statue it had auctioned off twice previously, in 2000 and 2009, according to a report in The New York Times, while the Norton Simon Museum in California said in a statement that it plans to return a statue of the warrior Bhima to Cambodia. Both were looted from the Prasat Chen temple within the Koh Ker complex.
“Now, 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, the Norton Simon has decided to make a gift of the Bhima to the Kingdom of Cambodia and to its people,” the Norton Simon Museum said.
The Bhima statue, depicting an ancient warrior whose story was told in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, has been on display for more than 30 years, acquired from a New York art dealer in 1976. However, the Cambodian government sought its repatriation, saying it was the twin of a looted statue depicting another famous warrior, Duryodhana, who battled Bhima and his four brothers, known collectively as the Pandavas.
Norton Simon said that while it and the Cambodian government have “a good faith difference of views in relation to the meaning and scope of Cambodian law and guidelines governing the determination of ownership of the Bhima,” both sides worked together to arrange the repatriation.
The Christie’s statue depicts Balarama, the brother of the god Krishna, and is part of a grouping of nine statues looted from Koh Ker along with Bhima and Duryodhana. The entire set tells the story of a wrestling match between Bhima and Duryodhana, with the four other Pandava brothers, Balarama, Krishna, and another warrior looking on.
Christie’s could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Anne Lemaistre, head of Unesco in Cambodia, confirmed that the Balarama would be returned.
“It’s a great day for Cambodia and it’s a success,” she said.
“What we would like to say as Unesco is that first of all, times are changing,” she said. “I would say now that there is a real recognition of the fact that removing artifacts which are important for culture, history and identity is recognized by the general public as not ethical.”
Mr. Sok An was in New York Wednesday for a ceremony held by U.S. prosecutors and customs officials to repatriate the sandstone Duryodhana statue—over which a two-year legal battle raged with the auction house Sotheby’s.
The statue was pulled from auction in March 2011 after the U.S. government intervened in its sale on behalf of the Cambodian government.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Sok An would use his time in New York to discuss repatriation plans for the other two statues.
“His Excellency Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, as well as [Council of Ministers Secretary of State] Chan Tani and other Cambodian heritage experts, left the country [on Tuesday] and they are now in New York to coordinate the return of the two statues,” Mr. Siphan said.
The ultimate aim for the returned statues is that they be reunited with the pedestals from which they were hacked during the turbulent 1970s and displayed as they were intended—as part of a tableau in Prasat Chen’s western gopura, or entrance.
In June last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned two statues of the Pandava brothers from the same tableau.
“The Pandavas [returned last year] are not yet exposed…but what the Ministry of Culture is preparing is a kind of global exhibition. We are reconstructing Prasat Chen at the National Museum,” Ms. Lemaistre said. The recovered statues will eventually be set out in the re-imagined space.
Of the nine statues in the tableau, three have yet to be returned. The whereabouts of one is unknown, while two others are in private collections.
Two other statues from the temple’s eastern gopura, also believed to have been looted in the 1970s, are still in the US. The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired a Hanuman statue from Koh Ker in 1982, while a torso of Rama was acquired by the Denver Art Museum in 1986.
Asked if she believes the two museums will one day relinquish the pieces, Ms. Lemaistre said Unesco is always pleased to see the International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics put into practice.
“We can say it’s precisely these professionals recognizing the importance of the restitution of these looted objects—it’s an incredible gesture from their part,” she said.
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