Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Cambodia Welcomes Repatriation of Statues from Metropolitan Museum

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The return of 14 sculptures looted from Cambodia during a period of war and unrest has been described as welcoming home the souls of ancestors, according to Cambodia’s culture minister. The artifacts were repatriated from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed on Thursday at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. These sculptures, created between the 9th and 14th centuries during the Angkorian period, reflect the Hindu and Buddhist religious practices of that era.

The return of these national treasures, which followed several years of negotiations involving Cambodia’s art restitution team, U.S. federal prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Metropolitan Museum, marks a significant moment for the Cambodian people, said Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona. She emphasized the importance of recalling the heritage of their ancestors through both good and bad times.

“The artifacts remained abroad for a long time, but their return to Cambodia is a blessing for our people, contributing to peace and stability in our country now,” Phoeurng Sackona remarked. She noted that the artworks carry the souls of their ancestors, bringing with them history, admiration, and knowledge.

Without providing details, the minister expressed hope that another 50 artifacts would soon be returned from the U.S. Cambodia claims that more items, illegally trafficked, are still held at the Metropolitan Museum and other institutions, as well as by private collectors.

“These returns contribute to the reconciliation and healing of the Cambodian people, who endured decades of civil war and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime,” Phoeurng Sackona added. “They also demonstrate the positive partnership we have developed with the United States.”

This event highlights a recent trend in the art world regarding the repatriation of art and archaeological treasures to their countries of origin. Not only ancient Asian artworks but also pieces stolen during conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Nazi-occupied Europe have been returned in recent years.

The sculptures sent back to Cambodia from the Met were looted during a tumultuous period under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. They were bought and trafficked by the infamous art dealer Douglas Latchford, who faced accusations in 2019 of orchestrating a scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities. Latchford, who passed away in 2020, had denied any involvement in smuggling.

Cambodia’s Culture Ministry has highlighted two significant returned works that are expected to be restored by reuniting them with parts already in possession. Among these is a “remarkable” stone sculpture of the goddess Uma from the 10th century, originating from the ancient royal capital of Koh Ker. The sculpture’s foot had been previously retrieved from its original site.

“Finally, the goddess Uma can be restored to her full magnificence as a complete statue,” the ministry stated. Another significant artifact is a 10th-century bronze head of the deity Avalokiteshvara, which is anticipated to be reunited with its torso currently on display at the National Museum of Cambodia.

Source: Associated Press