English art collector Douglas Latchford poses with the statue.
An ancient Khmer sculpture worth over $50,000 has been presented to Phnom Penh's
National Museum after 20 years in the possession of an English businessman.
In a rare repatriation by a foreign collector, Douglas Latchford returned the early
10th century torso to Cambodia in a reception held on October 17.
The handover ceremony was attended by Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Princess
Norodom Buppha Devi, and coincided with the donation to the museum of 178 artifacts
that had been languishing in the Royal Palace's basement for ten years.
"This reception [for the torso] was a little different," said the museum's
deputy director Hab Touch. "Usually the return of artifacts is by foreign governments
or Cambodian people, but this was the wish of a private collector to return the piece."
The headless, armless statue of a hunchback figure is believed to date back to the
Koh Ker period, when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker.
Latchford, a collector of Asian art and sculpture for many years, saw the piece in
a collectors' magazine in 1983 and purchased it for an undisclosed sum. However it
later became apparent that the statue was more valuable than he first imagined.
"The magazine had labeled the statue incorrectly as a late 10th century piece,"
he said. "They didn't realize its true period."
Latchford only learned the significance of his purchase when he saw a photograph
of a hunchback statue in a 1939 book by French scholar Henri Parmentier. He noticed
the picture he was looking at showed the statue sitting in his collection, and felt
it should be returned to its original home.
The National Museum's Hab Touch said little was known about how the statue made its
way to Europe.
"We know the statue was in the main temple at Koh Ker in 1939," said Touch,
"but after that we don't know what happened to it and why it was stolen. It
is good to have it back because the hunchback figure is very rare in Khmer art."
By sheer coincidence, the only other hunchback statue of the era known to exist was
among the artifacts being handed over to the National Museum by the Royal Palace.
That one is still be in possession of its arms and head.
The 178 artifacts donated by the Royal Palace to the museum date from between the
7th and 13th centuries. They were stored at the Angkor Conservation Center in Siem
Reap, but were removed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to the palace in
1993 because of security concerns.
"For nearly ten years [the artifacts] were in the basement of the palace and
never open to the public," said Touch. "We understood that now the security
situation in Cambodia is much more stable and that there are a lot more tourists
coming to the National Museum, so the Ministry requested the return of the pieces
for conservation and display."
The handover of the hunchback statue also highlighted the issue of the repatriation
of Cambodia's cultural property, a problem the government and NGOs have been trying
to tackle since 1992. In 1995, the UN's cultural organization UNESCO and the International
Council of Museums produced a list of 100 major works of art that had disappeared.
Only 19 were recovered.
"Many Khmer artifacts are in private collections around the world," said
Touch. "During the civil war a lot of Khmer artifacts were lost and illicit
UNESCO's representative Etiènne Clement said repatriating missing artworks
was a huge task.
"There are literally thousands of artifacts, especially sculptures, that were
stolen from Cambodia between 1972 and now," he said. "It is clear that
there are many in museums and private collections around the world, and UNESCO has
been advising [the government] to help facilitate their return."
Touch said that the ultimate goal was to establish museums in the provinces so the
unique history of the various areas could be shared with everyone.
"The artifacts are very important for the people of Cambodia as it is part of
their history," he said. "Cambodian people need to know their own culture
and local identity, and we hope people around the world understand this."
Touch said he hoped others would follow in Latchford's footsteps and hand back lost
works of art.
"We hope his generosity will set a good example for others," he said, "and
we welcome anyone who wishes to return their artifacts to the Cambodian people."