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Welcoming set for warrior

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An holds a brochure with the image of the Koh Ker statue in Phnom Penh
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An holds a brochure with the image of the Koh Ker statue in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Welcoming set for warrior

A hero's welcome is in store for a long-lost warrior – of the sandstone variety – when it returns to Cambodia, the government said yesterday.

At a press conference yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An announced the government would organise a welcoming ceremony once the highly disputed, $2 million sandstone statue known as the Duryodhana is repatriated, after help from the US and UNESCO.

Although an exact date is yet to be determined, the settlement to return the statue, signed on Thursday, ends a two-year legal battle with the stipulation that Sotheby’s auction house will voluntarily transfer the antiquity to a Cambodian representative in New York within 90 days. From there, Sok An said, it would mostly be air shipped into Phnom Penh.

“The consigner and Sotheby’s voluntarily determined, in the interest of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage, to arrange for the transfer,” Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s said in an email.

In exchange, US federal attorneys agreed to withdraw allegations that Sotheby’s and the consignor Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa knew or believed that the statue was owned by the Kingdom of Cambodia prior to attempting to auction the antiquity in 2011.

“This is a major change in the government’s position,” said Gully, who also said in a statement that it was Sotheby’s “long-standing objective to facilitate the transfer of the sculpture to Cambodia”.

Last year, The New York Times reported that Sotheby’s accused US federal attorneys representing the Cambodian government of blocking a $1 million private deal in which the purchaser claimed to have interests in donating the statue back to Cambodia.

Under Thursday’s accord, neither the consignor, nor Sotheby’s will receive compensation for the repatriation of the statue, which was most likely shorn from its pedestal in the Koh Ker temple northeast of Angkor Wat during the Khmer Rouge reign of the 1970s.

During yesterday’s conference, Sok An urged other collectors holding ancient Khmer treasures to likewise voluntarily return looted goods.

In June, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art repatriated two kneeling attendant statues from the same temple as the Duryodhana. The pieces are now housed at the National Museum, which Sok An said would likely be the new home of the Duryodhana as well.

“The National Museum is the best place to keep the [returning] statues,” he said.

The Duryodhana’s twin, the Bhima, is located at the Norton Simon Museum in California, though according to UNESCO, museum officials are set to visit the kingdom and discuss the statue’s potential return early next year.

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