The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced on Friday that it would return to Cambodia a pair of Angkorian statues in its possession for more than two decades.
Cambodian authorities have argued that the sandstone statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, were looted from the Koh Ker temple complex during the civil war in the early 1970s before they made their way to the Met through various art collectors and dealers.
“This is a case in which additional information regarding the Kneeling Attendants has led the Museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today,” Met director Thomas P Campbell said in a statement.
“The decision follows a recent meeting in Phnom Penh between senior museum officials and representatives of the Cambodian government.”
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, welcomed the decision.
“This is a promising sign that not only these statues but other statues that were looted from Cambodia during the civil war during the 70s, and during the 80s, will be returned,” he said.
Tha could not say precisely when the statues would be repatriated but said he believed it was likely that – once in the country – they would be sent to the National Museum, the destination of many looted statues that have been returned over the years.
Neither Tha nor Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum, were able to disclose the particular nature of the new information that led the Met to make its about-face.
According to Vireak, representatives from the Met had come to Cambodia last month and discussed the matter with Hab Touch, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, whom the Post could not reach for comment. Vireak said he was waiting for information about the statues from Touch.
Vireak added that during their visit, the Met representatives had also come to the National Museum to discuss the logistics of a loan by the museum for an exhibit of Khmer statues in the Met next year.
The Kneeling Attendants, the Met says, were given to the museum in pieces between 1987 and 1992 through a series of donations from multiple sources, including collector Douglas Latchford and London Auction House Spink & Son.
According to the US Attorneys Office’s version of events, Latchford and Spink & Son were also involved in concealing the looted statue of the Duryodhana – another 10th-century statue broken off from its base in Koh Ker, and which is the subject of a repatriation suit by the US government against Sotheby’s auction house in New York.
Despite these alleged connections between the backgrounds of the Duryodhana and the Kneeling Attendants, Sotheby’s said over the weekend that “the Met’s voluntary agreement does not shed any light on the key issues in our case.”
Maintaining that the current owner’s acquisition of the statue was a “good faith purchase”, the auction house wrote in its statement: “We expect to prevail.”