By Youk Chhang
The decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to repatriate two 10th century statues to Cambodia comes at an important time as Cambodia continues its struggle to reclaim its cultural heritage.
The statues—which have been referred to as the “Kneeling Pandavas” (or “Kneeling Attendants”)—are life-sized sandstone sculptures that have guarded the doorway to the Museum’s Southeast Asian Galleries since 1994.
They were illicitly taken from the Koh Ker site during the 1970s, and the museum decided to return the statues to Cambodia after investigation and further discussions with the Office of the Council of Ministers of Cambodia. As the director of the museum stated, “The Museum is committed to applying rigorous provenance standards not only to new acquisitions, but to the study of works long in its collections in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history.”
The museum’s decision is important because it sets a positive example for the world community with respect to already acquired cultural property. Under current international standards, museums are bound to make every effort with respect to establishing the full history of cultural property prior to acquisition. However, with respect to already acquired items, the onus of due diligence seems less weighty—making the Met’s decision an important step forward in the restitution of illegally and illicitly acquired cultural property.
But outside of the salutatory effect that this decision may have on other museums’ policies, the return of these statues is also important for calling attention to the Cambodian people’s struggle to reconcile with a turbulent past.
Cambodia has experienced decades of war, mass atrocity and social upheaval that have had a deleterious effect on the country’s national identity and heritage. Many priceless artifacts were removed from the country and sold to foreign collectors; and while war, atrocity and social upheaval have disappeared, the effects of this turbulent past on the country’s heritage remain today.
Cambodia is a land of incredible beauty and history. Temples, mosques, statues and artwork of renowned beauty cover the countryside. Their remoteness adds to their beauty, but it also provides opportunities for exploitation. Poverty and a lack of understanding among ordinary Cambodians accentuate the risk of looting or the illegal removal of priceless treasures. While better law enforcement and greater awareness by foreign organizations and governments has helped stifle this outflow of national heritage, there is the continuing need to restore cultural property that was illegally or illicitly acquired in the past.
In a case pending before the federal district court for the southern district of New York, the U.S. government has sought the return of a sandstone statue of the mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhana. The statue originates from the Koh Ker site in Cambodia, and it is a depiction of the antagonist of the Mahabharata—an epic battle described in “The Bhagavad Gita.”
The prosecutors in the case allege that the Sotheby’s auction house provided inaccurate provenance information on the statue in an effort to sell it.
While the case is important for establishing the truth about the Duryodhana’s history, it stands as another example of the arduous struggle that Cambodia must wage to reclaim its heritage and all the more reason to encourage greater responsibility and due diligence on the part of organizations, governments and collectors with respect to protecting and restoring Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
Youk Chhang is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia