Recently returned after 30 years in a US museum, a priceless Angkorian statue looted from war-torn Cambodia in the early 1970s was feted at the Council of Ministers yesterday.
The 1.6-metre-tall 10th-century Torso of Rama statue was returned by the Denver Art Museum after archaeologists from the Apsara Authority were able to prove that the artefact was looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Preah Vihear province, National Museum director Kong Vireak said yesterday.
The statue’s return, which actually took place in late February, was officially marked in a handover ceremony at the Council of Ministers yesterday morning.
Using forensic techniques, the archaeologists demonstrated that the statue, which is missing its head, arms and feet, was originally connected with a plinth found at the Koh Ker archaeological site, which was heavily looted during the civil war.
The Denver Art Museum had reportedly purchased the footless statue in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York.
Museum director Christoph Heinrich, who was present at yesterday’s handover, expressed to reporters both dismay at losing the ancient sculpture and goodwill that it had been returned to its home country.
Vireak, who said that the Americans paid for all associated costs of transporting the statue, praised the museum for its cooperation, but added that many US museums, including Heinrich’s, still contained other Angkorian and pre-Angkorian antiquities that he would like to see returned.
“We are making a peaceful appeal to museums and private collectors who still own Cambodian antiquities that they believe were looted to return them to Cambodia voluntarily, with honour,” he told the Post. “It’s better than going to court.”
In May, a 10th-century statue of the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman, which had also been looted from Koh Ker, was returned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In October, a Norwegian private collector returned 11 Cambodian antiquities, and in January, France’s Guimet Museum returned a seventh-century Hindu head. All are in the possession of the National Museum.
While the Rama statue had to go through some restoration work and be connected with its feet before it could be displayed, Vireak estimated that it would be put on exhibit in a few month’s time.
At the handover yesterday, Yim Nolson, vice chairman of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of Cambodia, praised the return of Rama, but noted a hint of remorse.
“We are joyful with the Torso of Rama returning home. However, we are distressed to see the Rama still missing his head.
Therefore, the royal government of Cambodia appeals to all museums and collectors around the world to follow this good example by returning the Rama’s head,” he said.