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Looted statue comes home

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An Apsara dancer dashes past the recently returned Hanuman statue at the Council of Ministers during a handover ceremony yesterday in Phnom Penh. Kimberley McCosker

Looted statue comes home

A 10th-century statue depicting the Hindu god Hanuman was returned to Cambodia yesterday after evidence arose that the sculpture was stolen from the remote Prasat Chen temple during the Kingdom’s civil war.

The sandstone statue of the monkey king was likely looted in the 1970s and was a part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection since 1982.

Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers Chan Tani said at a press conference yesterday that the sculpture’s return demonstrates the historical significance of the Koh Ker temple complex and highlights the rampant looting that has taken place in the country.

“During the 1970s, due to our security issues, a lot of valuable sculptures were stolen,” he said. “[These] sculptures represent the soul of the nation.”

Tani added that the piece will be restored over the next year.

“Hanuman will be taken for repairs,” he said. “We can see from some sculptures handed over that some are broken – with no head, or some body parts damaged – so we need to repair them. We will then exhibit them at the [National] Museum.”

Cleveland Museum director Dr William M Griswold said he believed that the return will usher in a new chapter of cooperation between Cambodia and other countries.

“This return will help Cambodia in its plan to [revive] the temple, and this voluntary act will [foster] a good connection between Cambodia and the [Cleveland] museum,” he said.

Tani noted that the Hanuman statue is the sixth sculpture returned to Cambodia since 2013.

Last year, the Kingdom welcomed back three other sandstone pieces associated with the temple: Duryodhana, Bhima and Balarama. The trio was part of the same tableau and were once locked in combat at Prasat Chen. The Duryodhana was returned after a fierce legal battle with the auction house Sotheby’s, which according to Tani tried to auction the statue off for $3 million.

The Bhima statue was given back voluntarily by the Norton Simon Museum in California, where it had been since 1976. Balarama, an onlooker of the epic fight, was handed over by Christie’s after it suspected foul play in its acquisition.

In 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art started repatriating two kneeling “attendants” known as the Pandavas. They form part of a collection of four other attendants that were beside their brother Bhima, who eventually emerged victorious from the battle, according to Hindu lore.

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