UPDATE: Repatriation of Metropolitan Museum’s Cambodian Art
December 5, 2019
Following a visit to Cambodia six weeks ago by its General Counsel, Sharon Cott, and its Southeast Asian Curator, John Guy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to return two monumental sculptures to Cambodia. The life-size sandstone sculptures, known as the Kneeling Attendants, have guarded the doorway to the Met’s Southeast Asian Galleries since they opened in 1994. This is the latest, but certainly not the last, chapter of an ongoing campaign by the Cambodian government to retrieve looted art. Indeed, the government has requested that the Met review the provenance of another two dozen objects in its collection, according to The New York Times.
The Cambodian government is also investigating a statue called Bhima at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. According to the Times, that Museum is cooperating with the investigation. As previously reported here (March 9, 2013), a suit to confiscate a fourth statue, Duryodhana, has been filed by U.S. officials against Sotheby’s, where it was consigned for auction. That suit is expected to go to trial later this year.
All four statues came from the Koh Ker temple complex 180 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. Apparently what convinced Ms. Cott and Mr. Guy were photographs of the statues’ broken bases still in situ and witnesses’ accounts that the statues were in place as late as 1970. That date is key, because that is when UNESCO adopted, and the United States ratified, the Convention of the Means of Protecting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The Met’s statues were acquired in pieces as a series of gifts beginning in 1987, when London auction house Spink & Son and Khmer art expert and collector, Douglas A. J. Latchford, jointly donated one of the two heads. The second head was donated by Raymond G. and Milla Louise Handley in 1989. In 1992, Mr. Latchford donated the two torsos.
With a hint of “white man’s burden,” Mr. Latchford said, with regard to the Met’s statues, “Admittedly, these things were moonlighted out of Cambodia… But had they not been, they would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge.” There is some validity to Mr. Latchford’s position. However, the illicit trade in antiquities also results in damage and loss. Regardless, it is clear that repatriation will continue to be a thorny issue.
Source: The New York Times