Several of Cambodia’s sandstone warriors are making their way home to a remote jungle temple north of Angkor Wat.
Yesterday, a Cambodian delegation gathered in New York to receive the Duryodhana, a 10th-century sculpture and the subject of a prolonged legal battle between Sotheby’s and Cambodia that ended in December with a settlement arranging the artefact’s homecoming. A day earlier, Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum in California both announced that they would voluntarily repatriate statues from the same temple at the Koh Ker archaeological site.
The recent slew of return agreements comes after the Metropolitan Museum of Art volunteered the first two statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, one year ago. It was the first time looted antiquities were willingly returned from a museum collection.
“It’s an extremely historic moment, and we hope these returns to Cambodia set an example for cultural reclamation around the world,” said Anne LeMaistre, country representative for UNESCO. “Cambodia has been deprived of its cultural heritage from Koh Ker. In a way, it’s like reconstituting their identity like a jigsaw puzzle – piece by piece, statue by statue.”
All of the soon-to-be-returned treasures belong to a cast of nine from the Prasat Chen Temple, which for 10 centuries depicted a fight between two mythological Hindu heroes. But the nine figures were all decapitated, hewn from their bases and dragged out from the temple in phases during systemic looting in the 1970s against the backdrop of civil war. Afterwards, they were sold in antiquities markets to private collectors.
“It is important to remember the only reason Prasat Chen – and not the countless pillaged temples like it – makes headlines is because we know exactly when it was looted, where its statues went, and where they are now. We can guess for others . . . What separates [Prasat Chen] is only a great deal of detective work and luck,” said Tess Davis, an antiquities lawyer and researcher at the University
But that luck certainly paid off for Cambodia. After four decades of empty ruins, it won’t be long now until the temple’s battle can be restaged, with the Duryodhana, one of the Hindu warriors at the centre of the battle now in the custody of Cambodian officials, and the Norton Simon’s Bhima, the opposing warrior, soon to follow, along with Christie’s match to the Met attendants. Cambodia plans to reunite the group, along with the Kingdom’s sole relic from the Prasat Chen temple, and will initially host the six in the capital’s National Museum before eventually reattaching them to their original pedestals in Siem Reap.
“Koh Ker will become famous like Angkor Wat . . . the royal government could do that,” said Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist and professor at Zaman University in Phnom Penh.
Christie’s and Norton Simon did not return requests for comment yesterday.