A set of ancient gold jewellery, which once adorned an Angkorian statue before finding its way to a London art dealership, will be returned to the Kingdom, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced on Friday.
According to a ministry press release, the artefacts were listed by the Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art dealership in its online catalogue of Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian art. The ministry subsequently petitioned the dealership last November to return the jewellery.
“Cambodia has provided concrete testimony to prove that the artefact jewellery belongs to Cambodia, is jewellery designed in the Khmer style and that only Cambodia has this style and it was taken out of the country illegally,” the ministry statement says. “This return is a reconciliation for the Cambodian people, who have gone through the Khmer Rouge period.”
During decades of war and instability in the Kingdom, looters and smugglers pillaged ancient sites, with much of the artwork sold to foreign art collectors, although ministry spokesman Thai Norak Satya said it is unclear when the jewellery was taken from Cambodia.
“We do not know about what these things cost in the market but it is priceless for our cultural heritage,” he said.
The gold jewellery, which include a crown, necklace, earrings, armbands, belt and chest ornament, will be returned with the assistance of the British government, although an exact date for their return has not been confirmed, Norak Satya said, noting that the necessary paperwork is still being processed.
The ministry press release identifies the jewellery set as that appearing on the cover of the book Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods by Emma C Bunker and Douglas AJ Latchford, renowned Southeast Asian antiquities experts whom The New York Times identified in March as co-conspirators in a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney in New York.
The complaint alleges that the pair – in cahoots with New York gallery owner Nancy Wiener – for years falsified documentary history of looted Cambodian artefacts to more easily sell them.
In an email yesterday, gallery co-owner Jonathan Tucker explained that he was selling the pieces “on behalf of a collector who had owned them for many years”.
“I subsequently returned them to the collector’s representative. I was not involved in their return to Cambodia but am pleased to hear that the matter has now been satisfactorily resolved,” he said.
Tucker declined to name the collector or connect reporters to the representative. Asked what precautions the gallery took to avoid listing looted artefacts, Tucker wrote: “I have nothing more to add except to say that I take extensive precautions about provenance.”