Three pre-Angkorian statues took center stage at the Council of Ministers on Tuesday, bringing to an end a saga that began when they were hacked from their plinths at the ancient Prasat Chen temple during the 1970s.
The Balarama, Duryodhana and Bhima statues—which were originally displayed with six other statues to depict a mythical battle scene from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata—were seen together for the first time since the looting at the temple.
They were returned to Cambodia separately last week.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An lauded the return of the “three heroes back to our homeland where they belong” during a ceremony that was attended by government officials, Unesco country representative Anne Lemaistre and representatives from Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum, from which the cultural art-ifacts were repatriated.
“In a long, 40-year journey, surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and traveling the world, these three have now regained their freedom and returned home,” he said.
The statues are among several looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vihear province.
Ms. Lemaistre said the return of the three statues was of particular significance in light of the conflict-related devastation of artifacts in countries such as Syria and Iraq.
“It gives me extreme satisfaction to see them back and for me it’s—wow—an historic moment,” she said. “We’ve been working on it for three years, and now that I see them there, it’s like a dream. I cannot believe it.”
The statues will ultimately be displayed in a permanent setting at the National Museum, Ms. Le-maistre added.
“Young Cambodians now will be able to enjoy these new pieces of heritage…and we are not talking about small pieces, we are talking about masterpieces,” she said.
Sotheby’s auction house, which was involved in a legal tug-of-war over the Duryodhana statue, was notably absent from Tuesday’s proceedings, unlike Christie’s auction house and the Norton Simon Museum, which volunteered to return their statues.
But Christie’s representative Martin Wilson said the auction house was “absolutely delighted to know that we have helped to ensure that this very important statue of Balarama finds its way back to its birthplace.”
Walter Timoshuck, president of the Norton Simon Museum, said he was happy to have honored Cambodia’s “compelling request” for the return of the Bhima.
Chuch Phoeun, a Ministry of Culture secretary of state, said the government intends to push ahead with repatriating more statues.
“Whenever we hear of news about the whereabouts of other remaining statues, we will contact [the owners] and start working on it,” he said.