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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Culture the winner as 'hunchback' returns

Culture the winner as 'hunchback' returns

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English art collector Douglas Latchford poses with the statue.

An ancient Khmer sculpture worth over $50,000 has been presented to Phnom Penh's

National Museum after 20 years in the possession of an English businessman.

In a rare repatriation by a foreign collector, Douglas Latchford returned the early

10th century torso to Cambodia in a reception held on October 17.

The handover ceremony was attended by Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Princess

Norodom Buppha Devi, and coincided with the donation to the museum of 178 artifacts

that had been languishing in the Royal Palace's basement for ten years.

"This reception [for the torso] was a little different," said the museum's

deputy director Hab Touch. "Usually the return of artifacts is by foreign governments

or Cambodian people, but this was the wish of a private collector to return the piece."

The headless, armless statue of a hunchback figure is believed to date back to the

Koh Ker period, when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker.

Latchford, a collector of Asian art and sculpture for many years, saw the piece in

a collectors' magazine in 1983 and purchased it for an undisclosed sum. However it

later became apparent that the statue was more valuable than he first imagined.

"The magazine had labeled the statue incorrectly as a late 10th century piece,"

he said. "They didn't realize its true period."

Latchford only learned the significance of his purchase when he saw a photograph

of a hunchback statue in a 1939 book by French scholar Henri Parmentier. He noticed

the picture he was looking at showed the statue sitting in his collection, and felt

it should be returned to its original home.

The National Museum's Hab Touch said little was known about how the statue made its

way to Europe.

"We know the statue was in the main temple at Koh Ker in 1939," said Touch,

"but after that we don't know what happened to it and why it was stolen. It

is good to have it back because the hunchback figure is very rare in Khmer art."

By sheer coincidence, the only other hunchback statue of the era known to exist was

among the artifacts being handed over to the National Museum by the Royal Palace.

That one is still be in possession of its arms and head.

The 178 artifacts donated by the Royal Palace to the museum date from between the

7th and 13th centuries. They were stored at the Angkor Conservation Center in Siem

Reap, but were removed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to the palace in

1993 because of security concerns.

"For nearly ten years [the artifacts] were in the basement of the palace and

never open to the public," said Touch. "We understood that now the security

situation in Cambodia is much more stable and that there are a lot more tourists

coming to the National Museum, so the Ministry requested the return of the pieces

for conservation and display."

The handover of the hunchback statue also highlighted the issue of the repatriation

of Cambodia's cultural property, a problem the government and NGOs have been trying

to tackle since 1992. In 1995, the UN's cultural organization UNESCO and the International

Council of Museums produced a list of 100 major works of art that had disappeared.

Only 19 were recovered.

"Many Khmer artifacts are in private collections around the world," said

Touch. "During the civil war a lot of Khmer artifacts were lost and illicit

trafficking increased."

UNESCO's representative Etiènne Clement said repatriating missing artworks

was a huge task.

"There are literally thousands of artifacts, especially sculptures, that were

stolen from Cambodia between 1972 and now," he said. "It is clear that

there are many in museums and private collections around the world, and UNESCO has

been advising [the government] to help facilitate their return."

Touch said that the ultimate goal was to establish museums in the provinces so the

unique history of the various areas could be shared with everyone.

"The artifacts are very important for the people of Cambodia as it is part of

their history," he said. "Cambodian people need to know their own culture

and local identity, and we hope people around the world understand this."

Touch said he hoped others would follow in Latchford's footsteps and hand back lost

works of art.

"We hope his generosity will set a good example for others," he said, "and

we welcome anyone who wishes to return their artifacts to the Cambodian people."

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