Specialists from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts are planning to investigate the remaining Cambodian artefacts in the extensive collection of the New York-based Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET). The museum has already agreed to return a batch of 14 ancient Cambodian artefacts, said a December 15 ministry press release.

The pieces, described as “national treasures”, will be stored alongside 27 others which were repatriated to the Kingdom in July last year. A search of the US museum’s archives has so far identified more than 200 artefacts of Cambodia origin, all of which will have to be studied and assessed.

“Good news for the Kingdom! A product of the US-Cambodia bilateral agreement on cultural heritage that Minister of Culture Phoeurng Sackona and I renewed earlier this year, the only such MOU anywhere in Southeast Asia,” tweeted US ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy.

The ministry said that after several years of negotiations between the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, Home Land Security Investigation and The MET, the museum agreed to return 14 Cambodian artefacts.

“The negotiation and information shared between Cambodia and the US has led to a formal promise by The MET to send these 14 national treasures back to the Kingdom, to open their records of their Cambodian collection, and to allow the ministry’s specialists to examine the remaining Cambodian objects in the museum’s possession,” it added.

The release said the repatriation includes several masterpieces, including a breath-taking sculpture of a 10th century female goddess (Uma) from Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vihear province. It said that in 2021, the ministry successfully located the statue’s foot and collected testimony from former looters. They determined that it had been looted in 1997.

Other pieces include a 10th century bronze Head of Avalokiteshvara, – which matches a torso currently at the National Museum of Cambodia – and the 10th-11th century Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease, made of copper alloy with silver inlay. It was sold to The MET by the late Douglas Latchford in 1992.

Culture minister Phoeurng Sackona announced that the return of the national treasures held by The MET was of utmost importance for all of humankind, not just Cambodians.

“The enormous importance to the Cambodian people of these returns is difficult to overstate. The act of return is an act of healing for our nation. There are many more treasures at The MET that we also hope will be returned to Cambodia. We ask for other museums and private collectors to contact us to discuss their collections of Cambodian antiquities,” she said. 

“These returns contribute to the reconciliation and healing of the Cambodian people who went through decades of civil war and suffered tremendously from the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge genocide and to a greater strengthening of our relationship with the US,” she added.

Sackona said the repatriation of these statues shows the Kingdom’s continuing commitment to finding and returning all artworks and cultural treasures, which many believe will put to rest the souls of ancestors which had departed from their motherland. She attributed Cambodia’s hard-won peace as making the repatriations possible. 

She praised the efforts of US legal officials for their involvement in the case, as well as the US embassy in Phnom Penh and the ministry’s team of archaeologists and researchers. She also thanked Bradley J Gordon of Edenbridge Asia and Steven Heimberg of Apex Advisors, the ministry’s legal advisers, for their excellent work, which has led to the return of many of the Kingdom’s cultural treasures.

The MET said in a December 15 social media post that they returned a total of 16 objects to Southeast Asia, 14 to Cambodia and two to Thailand in, what it called “another important step and significant example of The MET’s careful examination of its collection and acquisition histories”.

“Every one of the 1.5 million objects in our collection has a unique history, and part of the Museum’s mission is to tell these stories. When, how, and where was it created? Who made it, and why? 

What was going on at that time and place in history? The MET also examines the ownership history or provenance: where has the object been, and in whose care?” it added.

The museum emphasised its commitment to “responsible collecting” and ensuring that all objects entering the collection meet their “strict standards”. 

In a separate press statement, Max Hollein, the Museum’s director and chief executive officer, said he has been working diligently with Cambodia and the US Attorney’s Office for years to resolve questions regarding these works of art.

“The MET is pleased to enter into this agreement with the US Attorney’s Office, and greatly values our open dialogue with Cambodia and Thailand. We are committed to pursuing partnerships and collaborations with our colleagues there that will advance the world’s understanding and appreciation of Khmer art, and we look forward to embarking on this new chapter together,” he said.

According to the culture ministry, as of July 2022, more than 100 looted pieces have been returned to Cambodia from the US.