US Museum Returns Stolen Rama Statue

A 10th century stone carving of the Hindu deity Rama, the last remaining statue from the Koh Ker temple complex that had been on public display outside Cambodia, was returned to Phnom Penh last week, officials confirmed on Sunday.

The torso of Rama, which is missing its head, feet and hands, was flown back to Cambodia on Wednesday from the Denver Art Museum, with a formal ceremony at the Council of Ministers planned for next month, said Kong Virak, director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Statue of Hindu deity Rama
Statue of Hindu deity Rama

“Receiving a statue with such special value is a joyous occasion, but we still have to work to find the others,” he said, noting that based on photographs and archaeological evidence, there could be as many as ten more statues from the temple complex in Preah Vihear province still unaccounted for.

“We never expected that any of the stolen statues would be returned, so we are grateful that another one has come back to Cambodia,” he said.

Mr. Virak said representatives of the Denver Art Museum, where the 1.6-meter-tall torso had been on display until December, first contacted Cambodian officials in mid-2015 and sealed its return in an agreement with the Council of Ministers signed on February 16.

In a statement on Friday, the Denver Art Museum said the statue—believed to have been looted from Koh Ker in the 1970s—was returned to Cambodia following new research into the piece’s provenance.

“We were recently provided with verifiable evidence that was not available to us at the time of acquisition, and immediately began taking all appropriate steps to deaccession the object and prepare it for its return home,” Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s director, is quoted as saying.

Following the discovery in 2012 of empty pedestals at Koh Ker’s Prasat Chen temple, officials began to search for the stolen statues. Six have since been located and returned, including two from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013, and four others held in collections at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the Norton Simon Museum and the Cleveland Museum.

Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia, said that while the statue’s return was greatly appreciated, four more statues from Prasat Chen are still believed to be held in private collections.

“To have all of the statues returned to Cambodia is something Unesco has been working hard to achieve, and we appeal to anyone who may currently have one of the remaining statues in their private collection to follow the nice gesture of the Denver museum and return it,” she said.

Although the Rama statue is back home, it may be a while before it goes on public display, said Mr. Virak.

“Repairing the torso will take time before it can be displayed with the other statues that have been returned,” he said, without saying exactly what improvements were being made to the sculpture. “It will take at least a year.”

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