Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona met with US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy on July 13 to celebrate the repatriation of 27 artefacts to Cambodia that were previously looted and sold abroad. The items are currently being kept at the National Museum.

Meanwhile, a controversial social media debate is taking place over a Khmer Empire statue nicknamed the Golden Boy that is currently on display at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, after an archaeologist in Thailand published a report laying claim to it for his country and the culture ministry of Cambodia responded with its own claims to ownership.

The press statement from the US embassy on July 13 noted that the 27 returned artefacts are among more than 100 looted pieces to be returned to Cambodia from the US.

“Today’s ceremony is a testament to the strong relationship between the US and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. US government initiatives, such as the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, demonstrate our longstanding support for the restoration of historic sites of cultural significance in Cambodia,” said Kritenbrink.

Ambassador Murphy also announced a new US government grant made through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation of $360,800 to support the restoration of Preah Vihear temple.

The statement said that this grant is in addition to the over $406,000 already provided for the preservation of the historic temple in northern Cambodia.

Sackona said she appreciated the contributions made by the US Government – both in time and resources – towards fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural properties.

“We look forward to furthering our cooperation in our investigations and efforts, training and exchanges of information and expertise as we recover our national treasures,” she said, as quoted in the press statement.

The US embassy said that the US has provided over $5 million to the government of Cambodia since 2001 for cultural preservation efforts, including over $3.5 million to conserve the Phnom Bakheng temple in Siem Reap and to support the Toul Sleng Museum.

Separately, the culture ministry stated that the statue in the collection of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art nicknamed “Golden Boy” dates to the 11th-century Angkorian-era and is made in the Baphuon style of the Khmer Empire, which once stretched across the region, but was based in what is now modern day Cambodia.

However, further research and documentation will be required in order to successfully convince the Metropolitan Museum of Art – a world-famous institution often referred to by its nickname, The Met – to return the statue to the Kingdom.

Currently, there is a roiling online controversy between Cambodian and Thai social media users, with each side arguing that the statue belongs to their respective nation and is part of their cultural heritage.

Cambodian and US government officials celebrate the return of 27 artefacts from the US in a handover ceremony. Hong Menea

The debate was set off by the publishing of a report by a well-known Thai archaeologist who earlier announced that he would gather evidence to support Thailand’s claim and retrieve it from the museum.

The Thai archaeologist’s report argues that the sculpture is actually of the Khmer Empire’s King Jayavarman VI and is done in the Thai Phimai style, which was never known to have been used in Cambodia. His claim to the statue for Thailand doesn’t deny that it depicts a Khmer king, rather, he argues that it originated and was looted from a site in Thailand due to the style it was carved in.

Golden Boy is currently on display at The Met. The statue is a 1.1-metre-tall bronze and gold covered standing male figure and the culture ministry believes it was smuggled out of Cambodia during the civil war years at some point.

Secretary of State Long Bonna Sirivath, spokesman for the culture ministry, said on July 12 that the ministry was aware of a recent post on social media regarding a Cambodian statue called Golden Boy which is currently at The Met in New York City.

He added that the statue was definitely an 11th-century Angkorian Khmer piece done in the Baphuon style and that the ministry was still investigating its origins, history and other legal aspects such as its provenance and sale and discussing how to get it returned.

“In this case, it seems too early to come to any firm conclusions, but we will reclaim what is ours and we do not want what is not ours. The ministry calls on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as other museums and private collectors, to return the Cambodian cultural property in their collections to the country where it originated if they don’t have any legal proof of ownership,” he said.

In addition to the statue, Sirivath also confirmed that the culture ministry team was conducting research on stolen antiquities as part of a global campaign in collaboration with the international community – especially with US authorities – to bring the stolen Cambodian cultural relics taken abroad back to the Kingdom.

“We know that cultural artefacts and antiquities trafficking is a global problem that occurs in many countries around the world. And we know that most of it is systemic and complicated, but it’s carried out on a large scale through fraudulent transfers, fake histories and intentionally clouded origins. Therefore, it is necessary to take action both at the national and international levels,” he said.

Im Sokrithy, director of the Department of Temple Conservation at Angkor Park and Archeology, said that historically everyone knows that part of Thailand was a territory of the Khmer Empire in the past, and this history is indisputable.

He argued that therefore the statues and artefacts from the Khmer Empire or from territory that once belonged to the Khmer Empire in the past should belong to Cambodia today, regardless of what country they are found in, saying that just because these areas are under Thai control now it does not mean that everything that comes from there is of Thai cultural origin.

However, as an archaeologist, he expects that the US and especially The Met will conduct in-depth studies to find out the true origin of the statue, as there has been a lot of illegal trafficking involving sales to US museums in the past, but now the authorities and institutions there have lately been more interested in making an effort to do the right thing.

“As far as the competing claims go, they’ll just need to determine the statue’s source. They must give it back to that source or to any country that clearly represents that source today,” he said.

When asked whether the US would render any official assistance in this matter, US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier said that the embassy hadn’t heard about the controversy yet and had nothing to add on it for now.