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Cargo staff handle the arrival of carefully packed sandstone figures
Cargo staff handle the arrival of carefully packed sandstone figures, returned from the US, at Phnom Penh International Airport. Pha Lina

Looted statues come home

Sandstone figures packed into crates that took groups of five or more to shift returned to Cambodia yesterday.

The Kingdom welcomed the repatriated 11th-century statues with little fanfare, a remarkably placid homecoming given the lengthy legal battle with auction house Sotheby’s and the enlivened conversation with a California art museum that led to their return.

“They are Duryodhana and Bhima. One from Sotheby’s and another from Norton Simon. They will be transferred first to the Council of Ministers for official reception on June 3 and then transferred to the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, for restoration and exhibition to [the] public,” National Museum director Kong Vireak said.

The Duryodhana and the Bhima, which depict opposing Hindu warrior figures that were locked in a mythic battle, were displayed at the Prasat Chen Temple in Siem Reap before being hacked from their pedestals and moved through the antiquities black market in the 1970s.

Over the past three years, Cambodian officials and art researchers have traced seven of the Prasat Chen’s nine statues to collections in the US. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York agreed to return two statues pillaged from the temple, the first time a museum collection has voluntarily returned antiquities.

At the end of last year, Sotheby’s settled an embittered court case, agreeing to pay for the repatriation of a third statue.

The Norton Simon Museum in California pitched in a fourth statue, the Bhima, and earlier this month Christie’s announced it too would give back a Prasat Chen figure, which is set to return today, according to a government spokesman.

The Denver Art Museum has been quiet about a statue that Cambodian officials claim it holds, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has questioned the provenance claim of the Cambodian Hindu monkey god statue they currently have on exhibit, stating the museum as of yet has no plans to return the figure.

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