Cambodia welcomes Met’s return of centuries-old statues looted during recent unrest

By SOPHENG CHEANG – Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The return to Cambodia this week of 14 sculptures looted from the country during a time of war and unrest was like a homecoming of the souls of ancestors, Cambodia’s culture minister said Thursday.

The objects repatriated from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art arrived on Wednesday and were presented to journalists and VIPs on Thursday at the National Museum in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

They “were created between the 9th and 14th centuries in the Angkor period and reflect the Hindu and Buddhist religious systems prevalent at the time,” the museum said in a statement this week.

A statement from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said the “historic return of national treasures” followed several years of negotiations between the Cambodian art restitution team, U.S. federal prosecutors in New York, U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigators and the Metropolitan Museum.

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Cambodian Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona said the return of the artifacts was very important for the Cambodian people to remember their ancestors’ heritage in good times and bad.

“The pieces remained abroad for a very, very long time, but today they have returned to Cambodia as a blessing for our people, now bringing peace and stability to our country,” she said.

For Cambodians, the returned artworks are the souls of their ancestors, she said. Bringing back the souls of ancestors also means bringing history, admiration and knowledge, said Phoeurng Sackona.

Without elaborating, she said Cambodia hopes to receive another 50 artifacts from the United States soon. Cambodia claims that other items smuggled out of the country are still at the Metropolitan, as well as other museums and in the hands of private collectors.

“These returnees are contributing to the reconciliation and healing of the Cambodian people, who have endured decades of civil war and suffered tremendously under the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Phoeurng Sackona. “They also demonstrate the truly positive partnership we have built with the United States.”

For the art world, their return is the result of a reckoning with the artworks and archaeological treasures that have been stolen from their home countries in recent years. These include not only ancient Asian artworks, but also pieces lost or stolen in the turmoil of other countries such as Syria, Iraq and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The pieces returned to Cambodia from the Met were looted during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia, which was ruled by the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

They were bought and traded by well-known art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for allegedly organizing a multi-year plot to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market. Latchford, who died the following year, had denied any involvement in the smuggling.

The Cambodian Ministry of Culture highlighted two works among the returned works that are expected to be restored by reuniting them with other pieces already in their possession

The repatriation also includes the “extraordinary” 10th-century stone sculpture of the goddess Uma from the ancient royal capital Koh Ker, it said. The base of the sculpture has already been recovered from its original location.

“Finally, Uma can be reunited to reach her full glory as a complete statue,” it said.

“In addition, one significant artifact returned is a 10th-century bronze head of the deity Avalokiteshvara, which the ministry has high hopes will finally be reunited with the matching torso currently on display at the National Museum of Cambodia,” it said.

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