After decades in exile, two priceless pieces of Khmer culture came home Friday.
The Honolulu Academy of Arts restored two sandstone heads, one dating from the 9th Century and the other from the 12th Century, at a ceremony at the National Museum Friday. Private collectors had donated the pieces to the US state of Hawaii-based museum, not realizing they had been ripped from a storehouse in Siem Reap sometime in the 1970s or 1980s.
“It’s every director’s worst nightmare,” academy Administrative Projects Assistant Timothy Choy said.
Minister of Culture Princess Norodom Bopha Devi presided over the ceremony and thanked the museum for volunteering to hand over the two sandstone heads, one from the 9th Century and the other dating from the 12th Century.
“I hope that from today, the activities of illicit traffic and looting of Khmer artifacts will be the end and that many Khmer artifacts located abroad will be returned to Cambodia,” the Princess said.
Cambodia’s cultural heritage has been the victim of plunder and looting for decades, but officials and dignitaries were hopeful Friday’s ceremony marked a turning point.
“This action…should be inspirational to other holders of Khmer art to restore Khmer art to the Khmer people,” US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann said.
When the museum’s board of directors learned they were sitting on two priceless pieces of classical Khmer sculpture, the group voted to restore them to the National Museum, without having to resort to diplomatic channels, academy Chairman Samuel Cooke said. “I’m thrilled to have been through the process,” Cooke said.
Friday’s ceremony marked the return of the 18th and 19th pieces of the 100 most-wanted missing artifacts, officials said. It came as a result of a Unesco manual that details each of the pieces and carries their picture.
While that may not seem a lot, it is a good start, Unesco Representative Etienne Clement said Thursday in anticipation of the ceremony.
“And they are priceless,” he added.