Cambodia says Met Museum has dozens of its antiques looted

Cambodia has started pressuring the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to document how it acquired dozens of Khmer Empire antiques that Cambodian officials say were looted during decades of war and of turmoil in the country.

Although Cambodia has been pushing the Met and other museums in recent years for the return of individual statues and sculptures that it says were looted between 1970 and 2000, this effort is much broader. Cambodian officials said they developed a spreadsheet of 45 “very important” items at the Met that evidence shows were stolen before being donated or sold to the museum.

Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has previously helped Cambodia recover illicit antiquities, met with museum staff last week to ask them to review the provenance of a number of artefacts, said officials said. Cambodian officials.

Federal officials have declined to comment on any discussions with museum staff, and the Met has not addressed details of what Cambodian officials describe as a rigorous new effort to reclaim their cultural heritage.

The Met said in a statement it was following its “long and well-documented history of responding to complaints about works of art, returning items where appropriate.”

He suggested that he had started to “proactively” research his collection regardless of Cambodian demand.

“Recently, in light of new information on certain pieces in our collection, we contacted the US attorney’s office – to tell us that we are happy to cooperate with any investigation,” the statement said.

The scope of the Cambodian initiative, according to those leading it, is fueled by years of extensive legal inquiries and archaeological research and by revelations from a former temple raider who admits to organizing the looting of dozens of Khmer shrines from the 1970s to the 1990s.

This man, whom Cambodian authorities only refer to as “Lion,” spent two years escorting officials to dozens of remote sites where, Cambodians say, he and his gang have systematically uprooted and taken away massive stone statues for sale. , intricate bronze sculptures and ceramics. funeral jars filled with royal gold and jewels. Most of these items, the former looter said, were sold through brokers in Thailand.

Credit…Sovannara / Xinhua, via Alamy Live News

Cambodian Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona said the former looter’s information was critical in identifying the 45 Met articles officials focused on. They also inspected the dates of the museum’s acquisitions and physical evidence such as chiseled mounts and broken remains found at the original sites. Of the 45 artifacts, she said, “Lion” recognized 33 as objects that he himself removed and 11 as matching the appearance of statues stolen by others.

The artifacts were acquired by the Met between 1977 and 2003, according to research by Cambodian officials.

“It surprises and disappoints me that there are so many of our statues at the Met,” the Culture Minister said, adding, “We want to see the truth come out, we want to see all the facts come out about it. We want them all to be returned.

In addition to the 45 items listed on the spreadsheet, Cambodian officials said they had questions about around 150 other artifacts from the Met’s collections that left Cambodia between 1970 and 2000, three decades in which the nation was torn apart by war, genocide and political upheaval. .

In July, the US lawyer embraced the credibility of “Lion” when prosecutors cited him in court documents relating to the return of a Khmer statue, “Skanda on a Peacock”, which he says he looted. An unidentified private owner voluntarily handed over this artifact, according to a press release from the Department of Justice which identified “Lion” as Pillager 1.

A conscript for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, “Lion” is now in his sixties and diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, officials say. Explaining the former looter’s rationale for helping the government now, a Cambodian official said “Lion” had expressed remorse.

“I want the gods to come home now,” said the official, a translator who often spoke with “Lion”.

Credit…Cambodian Ministry of Culture

Met policies on the acquisition of archaeological material have long emphasized the need for credible provenance documents showing that the item left its country of origin before 1970 or “was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. “. The collections policy, last updated in March, embraces the museum’s responsibility to promptly investigate information that casts doubt on the legitimacy of its ownership and, if warranted, to return the work.

Over the past decade, the Met and a few American museums have returned other Khmer artifacts based on evidence of looting. In 2013, the Met returned two giant statues known as ‘Kneeling Agents’ after two of its curators visited a looted site called Koh Ker. At the time, the Cambodian government applauded the museum’s ethical standards and professionalism.

As was the case with the ‘Kneeling’, six items from Cambodia’s Met List once belonged to Douglas AJ Latchford, a prolific collector and accused of trafficker of Khmer relics who died last year. Latchford’s daughter, who inherited her collection, agreed to return 125 of her items to Cambodia because of their tainted past.

Latchford donated several of the items on the Cambodian list, including a bronze face of a male deity now on display at the Met. “Lion” told Cambodian authorities he unearthed the artifact and took it in a military backpack in the 1990s from a temple in the Koh Ker complex.

Three other items on Cambodia’s list were sold or donated to the Met by Doris Wiener, a Manhattan gallery owner and Southeast Asian specialist who died in 2011. “Lion” told Cambodian investigators that one of the they, a “standing female deity,” were part of a couple he placed in an ox cart and covered with hay before putting them up for sale in 1997.

Credit…Metropolitan Museum of Art

Khmer antiques arriving in museums, galleries and auction houses during and after the period of upheaval in the country have long been the subject of suspicion. In 1993, the International Council of Museums published a guide to 100 objects known to have been looted from the Angkor temple complex. When the Met opened its South and Southeast Asian art galleries in 1994, New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote: in the lap of a wealthy American museum.

While the Met’s artefacts are a priority for Cambodian officials due to the museum’s stature and the extent of its collection, the country’s culture minister said the country is embarking on a much broader global hunt to antiques identified by Lion and others. They have built up a database of Khmer cultural objects covering nearly 100 institutions on five continents.

Bradley J. Gordon, a Phnom Penh-based US lawyer representing Cambodia in its hunt for looted antiques, said the effort is a deep for the government. “It is as if their grandmother’s jewelry has been stolen,” he said.

Cambodian officials say they have also been in contact with the Denver Art Museum. In a statement to The Times, the Denver Museum said it decided on September 1 to relinquish four Khmer artifacts associated with Latchford “and was actively discussing their return with US officials.”

Cambodia’s more assertive position comes at a time when museums anticipate a strong shift towards repatriation in general. The interest of Cambodians, however, extends beyond merchants and museums and includes wealthy families who may have obtained antiques that entered the market illegally.

“These are not just decorations for your homes,” said Phoeurng Sackona. “These are objects that have a soul, and it is very important that they are at home to help restore Khmer culture. We want to write the story of every statue that has been taken for the true benefit of mankind. “

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About Carlos V. Mitchell

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