The gallery displaying the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of ancient Cambodian sculptures is a clean, well-lit space. Visitors serenely contemplate the art, disturbed only by the occasional footsteps of a guard and the soft woosh of air-conditioning. But Cambodia says that at least 45 artworks in the Metropolitan’s collections were illicitly dug from temple sites by looters and then smuggled out of the country.
Visitors might sympathize with the museum’s reluctance to hand over the art to Cambodia. Won’t it be safer and better preserved in a prestigious museum? Won’t more people visit New York to see this glorious part of humanity’s shared history? As a cultural heritage lawyer, I believe Cambodia has the legal right to reclaim its stolen art regardless of the answer to these questions. But my recent visit to the country showed me that New Yorkers needn’t worry when they say goodbye to the sculptures.