Returned Statues Set to Go on Display at National Museum

The five 1,000-year-old statues repatriated to Cambodia from the U.S. earlier this year after being hacked off an Angkorian monument and smuggled out of the country in the 1970s will make their public debut in Phnom Penh this week.

Three sculptures returned by the auction house Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum, along with two others sent back by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will be displayed at the National Museum starting Wednesday.

Restoration experts at Phnom Penh's National Museum on Monday install an Angkorian statue returned from the US in the museum's special exhibition room. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Restoration experts at Phnom Penh’s National Museum on Monday install an Angkorian statue returned from the US in the museum’s special exhibition room. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The three-month exhibition will include descriptions of how the sculptures—looted from the 10th-century Koh Ker monument in Preah Vihear province and taken to the U.S.—were returned at Cambodia’s request, which received the backing of the U.S. government.

“Cambodians are especially eager to find out how they were returned,” National Museum director Kong Vireak said Monday. The exhibition will include information in Khmer, English and French on the process that led to the restitution, he said.

“This is an exhibition of statues that have returned, which we wanted to show to the public because they will soon disappear,” said Anne Lemaistre, country representative for Unesco, which is supporting the exhibit. The museum plans to set up a Koh Ker display with the statues, which will mean reorganizing the museum’s floor space and may take months, she said.

And the statues have yet to be fully restored.

The task is especially difficult because the sculptures, carved out of solid rock, are actually quite fragile, said art historian Darryl Collins. The smugglers hacked them off at the ankles, “their weakest point,” leaving the sculpted feet and pedestals behind, Mr. Collins said. So their balance is precarious, making them difficult to handle.

Experts at the museum’s restoration workshop are refurbishing the statues. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see them at work.

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