Last Koh Ker piece coming home

A temporary exhibition of Koh Ker pieces was opened at the National Museum in 2014.
A temporary exhibition of Koh Ker pieces was opened at the National Museum in 2014. Heng Chivoan

Last Koh Ker piece coming home

Cambodia is set to reclaim the last of the statues looted from the Koh Ker complex known to be kept in public collections, with a US museum agreeing to relinquish the piece from its permanent collection.

The statue of the warrior god Rama has been held by the Denver Art Museum for nearly 30 years. However, museum representatives said this week that the artefact will soon make its return to Cambodia, though an official agreement has not yet been reached.

The Rama torso – missing its head and its feet – remained on display in the museum’s Asian art gallery until last month.

“The Denver Art Museum is currently in the process of returning the 10th century Khmer sandstone sculpture to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s director, wrote in an email to Post Weekend.

“During the course of research into works in the Museum’s collection and following outreach to our colleagues in Cambodia, the DAM became aware of new facts related to the piece’s provenance that were not available to the museum when the object was acquired in 1986.”

Repatriations of relics from the remote Preah Vihear province complex’s Prasat Chen temple first captured international attention three years ago, following an archaeological dig that uncovered a number of empty pedestals.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 volunteered to return two statues from the temple’s western gopuram. Later that year – and following a court dispute – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum announced that they would repatriate their pieces.

Last May, the Cleveland Museum returned its figure of the monkey god Hanuman, from the temple’s eastern side – part of a representation of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The US museum had previously insisted that the statue did not come from Prasat Chen.

Three statues remain unaccounted for, likely in private collections. An official announcement from both the Denver Art Museum and Cambodia was set “for the near future”, according to a museum spokesperson.

National Museum director Kong Vireak said a complete memorandum of understanding had not yet been reached between the US museum, the National Museum and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. He declined further comment.

Thai Norak Sathya, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, also confirmed that the statue would make its return, but could not provide an exact date.

If repatriated, the Rama torso could join its counterparts in the Koh Ker room at the National Museum.

The Cambodian government has focused on the return of the Koh Ker statues because it was a set that could be made whole, said Tess Davis, the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition and a lawyer involved in the 2013 court case. “Those are all pieces that we all know were stolen contrary to law in the civil war,” she said.

Davis pointed out that as late as the 1960s, significant Khmer art collections did not exist beyond Cambodia and France. Today, museums across the US have artefacts on display. “For the most part, their pieces only appeared on the market in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. And how do you think they reached the market, many missing their feet and any paperwork?” she said.

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.

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