New York Museum to Return Stolen Statues

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will return to Cambodia two ancient Khmer statues stolen from the Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vi­hear province during the turmoil of the 1970s, the museum announced in a statement on Friday.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York…will return to the Kingdom of Cambodia two 10th century Koh Ker stone statues of ‘Kneeling Attendants,’” which were on display at the museum’s Southeast Asian Gallery for about 20 years, the statement reads. “The decision follows a recent meeting in Phnom Penh between senior museum officials and representatives of the Cam­bodian government,” it continues.

During the meeting, the Cambodian government had provided sufficient evidence to prove that the life-sized antiquities were looted between 1970 and 1975—information that had not been available before, museum director Thomas Camp­bell said in the statement.

“This is a case in which additional information regarding the ‘Knee­ling Attendants’ has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are an­nouncing today,” Mr. Campbell said.

The first item, the head of one of the statues, was donated to the Met in 1987 by London-based art dealer Spink and Son and Douglas Latchford, a prominent collector of Khmer artifacts. A second head was donated two years later by collectors Ray­mond and Milla Handley. Subsequently, Mr. Latchford provided the matching torsos to the Met, which assembled and put them on display.

The museum’s statement did not say when the statues—weighing 90 kg each and standing at about 1.2 meters tall—would be returned.

Ek Tha, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, which has established a task force to try to recover Cambodia’s stolen an­tiquities, said that he welcomed the an­nouncement and hoped to see the statues arrive soon.

“The Cambodian government thanks the [Met] for returning these important artifacts. We are very grateful because the spirit of the Khmer ancestors will not be at peace until all looted statues have returned home,” Mr. Tha said yesterday. A large but unknown number of similar statues, he said, remained in the hands of private collectors overseas.

A case over the rightful ownership of a mythic warrior figure, taken from the same site as the “Kneeling Attendants” around the same time and currently in the hands of auction house Sotheby’s, is due to go to trial in a New York Court later this year. Sotheby’s wants to retain the statue, while the U.S. government—at Cambodia’s request—argues it was looted and should be returned.

Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum, said yesterday that once returned, the twin statues would likely be exhibited at the National Museum, which was the only Cambodian institution that could care for such artifacts.

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