Looted Khmer artworks tend to travel in one direction these days – from Western countries back to Cambodia. But on Friday, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced it was returning part of a priceless sculpture dating from the AD 600s to the US museum that repatriated it to the Kingdom 10 years ago.
New 3D digital technology had revealed that the fragment, comprising Krishna’s hand, a strut and a supporting panel, did not belong to a statue of the god housed in Phnom Penh’s National Museum, as originally thought, but to another in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The sculpture detail was one of nine pieces sent to Cambodia by the US museum in 2005, which were incorporated into two Krishna statues being reconstructed by the National Museum at the time.
However, in 2014, analysis of the mineral content of the stone by experts at the National Museum suggested the returned section was in fact carved from the same piece of stone as the Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan work in Cleveland.
Three-dimensional scans of both the statue in the US and the fragment in Phnom Penh confirmed the findings of the Cambodian curators.
The 3D analysis, using digital technology that did not exist when the item was returned to Phnom Penh in 2005, also convinced the government of the importance of reuniting the pieces of the sculpture.
Dr Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum, said in a press release that the government’s decision would “present a new, enhanced opportunity for the public in the United States to see one of the great artistic accomplishments of the Khmer people”.
The Krishna section was first discovered in 1935, along with other fragments, at Phnom Da in Takeo province. It was then sent to Belgium as it was thought to belong to a Krishna statue that had found its way into a private art collection in Brussels.
The Cleveland museum acquired the statue in 1973, and in 1977 got hold of a number of fragments of Cambodian statues from the same Belgian collection.
It incorporated some of them into the reconstruction of its giant Krishna, but nine seemed unrelated to any of the statues housed in the museum.
These unused fragments were finally returned to Cambodia in 2005, along with the Krishna section that has now been sent back to America.