Last week Cambodia welcomed home a 10th-century statue of the Hindu god Hanuman. The statue, which had been looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in Siem Reap province during the civil war, was returned following research that established beyond doubt its dubious provenance.
Hanuman’s repatriation was the sixth of its kind to have taken place in Cambodia since 2013. But while the volume of returns may be rising, approval is far from universal. In a multimillion dollar art market where museums and private collectors spend fortunes amassing collections of antiquities, a global debate rages as to which objects ought to be sent back.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what should be on the market and what should not be on the market,” said William Pearlstein, a New York-based lawyer who specialises in art law.
“The subject matter lends itself to emotional, absolute responses, and the reality from a legal perspective is much more complicated.”
For Cambodian heritage conservationists such as National Museum director Kong Vireak, the more repatriations the better. “Our country really wants to get [looted artefacts] back to the country to keep for the next generation and tourists ... because it indicates the Khmer identity that our ancestors have created,” he said.
While an unknown number of looted Cambodian artefacts – mostly taken during the turbulent 1970s and ’80s – are scattered in private collections around the world, a number have found their way into major museums’ exhibits. The recently returned Hanuman statue, for instance, was one of nine statues looted from Prasat Chen temple in the Koh Ker temple complex.
Four of the other Prasat Chen statues have been repatriated by various US museums and auction houses in recent years, three are unaccounted for, while a torso of the Hindu god Rama remains in the Denver Museum of Art.
“I would be very grateful to these private owners, if they read these lines, to give them back generously to Cambodia to reunify the nine sculptures of this unique but incomplete ensemble depicting the Mahabharata,” said Anne LeMaistre, head of UNESCO in Cambodia.
A representative from the Denver Museum of Art, which didn’t respond in time for comment, told the Post last year that it was “committed to further research regarding [the] history and provenance” of the artefact in its possession.
Not all preservationists in the West, however, believe looted artefacts should necessarily be returned to their countries of origin. Barbara Newsom, co-founder of the Albuquerque-based Archaeological Conservancy nonprofit, said a case was to be made for keeping looted artefacts in foreign museums.
“Obviously, I think looting is a bad thing in that when dealers keep encouraging it, it’s not a very good idea. But I think that the governments have a duty to protect the things they think are important,” she said.
In the context of items stolen in the midst of chaos, such as 1970s Cambodia, she said valuable antiques were arguably better off when shipped to foreign museums even if they had been looted.
“I think some of these museums have done a very good job of protecting their content – they put them away where the marauders can’t get at them,” she said, adding that museums should have a say on whether or not to repatriate such items.
If governments want them back, she added, it was perhaps up to them to compensate the foreign museums that had sheltered the artefacts.
Art lawyer Pearlstein agreed that some governments, such as Egypt and Italy, are over-zealous in demanding antiques returned, particularly if the artefacts have been in private hands for centuries.
But while he said he was uncertain of the legal grounds on which items can be forcibly repatriated to Cambodia, he said there was a strong ethical argument to repatriate items plundered during the days of the Khmer Rouge.
“It’s a [legal] mess, but my sympathies are with Cambodia in getting their materials back,” he said.