Three of Cambodia’s ancient sandstone warriors were welcomed back to their birthplace yesterday, greeted by lotus wreathes and a troupe of traditional dancers adorned in gold.
The ceremony marked the end of a 40-year absence for the Duryodhana, Bhima and Balarama statues. The mammoth, 10th-century characters all belong to the same tableau of mythological Hindu figures once locked in battle at Prasat Chen, a remote jungle temple in Preah Vihear.
Over the past year, Cambodia has regained five of the nine statues pillaged from the temple’s Eastern entrance, haphazardly hacked from their pedestals and sold on to international art markets during the Khmer Rouge era.
“Surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and travelling the world, these three have now regained their freedom and returned home,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said during yesterday’s repatriation ceremony.
One of the temple centrepieces, the Duryodhana, arrived back in Cambodia after a two-year legal battle ended in a settlement, with Sotheby’s surrendering the sculpture, which it had once tried to auction for $3 million. The statue was transferred to Cambodian officials during a ceremony in New York last month.
The Duryodhana’s sparring partner, the Bhima statue, was voluntarily returned by the Norton Simon Museum in California, where it had been housed since 1976. The museum agreed to repatriate the statue just last month, following a lengthy debate and a “good-faith disagreement” over the provenance of the “Temple Wrestler”.
“It’s quite moving actually to see it [in Cambodia],” Walter Timoshuk, president of the Norton Simon Museum told the Post on the sidelines of yesterday’s ceremony. “His Excellency Chan Tani [secretary of state at the Council of Ministers] helped me and the museum trustees to better understand the value and importance of this incredible statue to Cambodia.”
One of six onlookers to the Duryodhana and Bhima’s epic battle, the Balarama statue was given to Cambodia as a gift from Christie’s, which had originally sold the figure to an anonymous collector in 2009 for more than $140,000. Christie’s bought the statue back earlier this year after learning that it may have been illicitly taken from Cambodia, according to a museum spokesperson.
“You see, this is not only lip service, but evidence of real action,” Sok An said yesterday.
Before the trio’s return, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art began the rush of Prasat Chen repatriations last year with an unprecedented move to voluntarily send two kneeling attendants that had been in the museum’s collection since the 1980s back to Cambodia. Known as the Pandavas, the museumt’s attendants form part of a collection of four flanking their brother Bhima, the battle’s eventual victor who ascended to rule the kingdom.
“The pillaging of Cambodia’s historical legacy has rightly been called a brutal attack on the soul of the nation,” Jeff Daigle, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said.
“Although it took more than two years … the repatriation of these statues demonstrates the strengthening commitment of American collectors and institutions to adhere to the highest ethical and legal standards in acquiring objects.”
Cambodian officials have claimed that two other American museums hold statues from another scene at Prasat Chen. The Cleveland Museum of Art sent a curator to investigate the origin claim of the Hanuman at the beginning of this year, but she concluded from attempted pedestal matchings that the statue and temple don’t make a fit. The Denver Museum, meanwhile, said it has not received evidence its statue is a looted work.
Cambodia hopes to recover all nine of the looted cast that once depicted the battle from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, and to eventually reunite them at the entrance to Prasat Chen. The Kingdom has successfully recovered five, and owns a sixth – the single statue from the scene that remained in its homeland. Two of the missing three are in private collections, according to UNESCO, and the location of a third is unknown.
For now, the six recovered works will be reunited at the National Museum before eventually being returned to their original home.
“It may not be the full happy ending yet, but it’s definitely an achievement,” Anne LeMaistre, country director for UNESCO, said.