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Statues reunited by exhibit

Visitors examine one of the recently returned kneeling attendant statues at the National Museum in Phnom Penh
Visitors examine one of the recently returned kneeling attendant statues at the National Museum in Phnom Penh yesterday as part of the opening of a three-month exhibition. Heng Chivoan

Statues reunited by exhibit

Five 10th-century sandstone warriors from a former Angkorian empire capital were reunited at the National Museum yesterday, the first time they have been seen together since they were plundered from their remote jungle temple for the likely profit of the Khmer Rouge.

The antiquities, which were repatriated from auction houses and museums in America, are now on display at a three-month exhibition in the capital. Arranged at the museum as they had appeared for nearly 1,000 years, the museum’s re-creation of the tableau from the Hindu epic Mahabarata was sadly still shy a handful of key cast members.

Two of the missing statues were discovered by archaeologists at the original Prasat Chen site and have been undergoing conservation, but another two are still thought to be in private collections in the US.

“We have to exhibit all nine together to complete the telling of the scene. We appeal to those who keep the statues to return them to Cambodia,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at a museum ceremony yesterday.

The five displayed statues represent the results of a slew of recent repatriation efforts, following from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s unprecedented voluntary return of the kneeling Pandava brothers last year. Between 1996 and 2014, Cambodia received a total of 350 repatriated antiquities that were looted from its temples by profiteers and criminal networks, museum director Kong Vireak said.

Though the antiquities black market is estimated to now be worth some $8 billion a year and a source of cash for terrorist networks, the exhibition reveals a more recent, reverse trend of cultural property.

“The idea that cultural artefacts are the property of the people of the place in which they are originated is gaining recognition,” said Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO country director.

The museum hopes other statues from the same site will also make their way back soon.

“This is the point where [museums and auction houses] really have to decide if they are on the right or wrong side of history,” archaeologist and lawyer Tess Davis said.

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