The Cambodian government is being kept busy trying to piece together the history of two objects in the Southeast Asian galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum. These two life-size 10th-century sandstone statues, called the Kneeling Attendants, currently "flank the doorway of the gallery where the Met displays its small but globally significant collection of artifacts from the glory days of Khmer civilization". They had been on display since 1994 when the Met opened its new Southeast Asian galleries. The heads of the two statues had been donated in 1987 and 1989, and the two torsos were given together to the museum in 1992. It now appears that they were taken around 1970,
at about the same time as a companion piece, a mythic warrior figure that the United States government sought to seize last month on Cambodia’s behalf from Sotheby’s, where it had been placed for sale [...] Anne LeMaistre, the Unesco representative in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, said her agency is assembling a report laying out evidence that the Met statues and the Sotheby’s warrior belonged to a 12-statue Khmer empire grouping first broken up when Cambodia was destabilized by civil war.The evidence accumulated in the case of the 'Sotheby’s Koh Ker piece', indicates that the temple was savagely looted after 1970, during Cambodia’s chaotic and bloody years of civil war, genocide and Vietnamese occupation. There is testimony from villagers who say the temple was virtually unmolested until the 1970s, and the not insignificant detail that until the late 1960s the area lacked the roads needed to carry away large and heavy statuary. The Met had (obtained) no information to say how and when these objects had left the country, or from what site they had come (though the style should have suggested that they were from the Koh Ker site in the period of its greatest glory).
Archaeologists believe the Kneeling Attendants stood for about 1,000 years at the Prasat Chen temple in a vast site called Koh Ker, about 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, said Eric Bourdonneau, who directs a project at the site overseen by the French School of Asian Studies. The Met statues, the experts say, stood a few yards from the Sotheby’s warrior, a figure known as Duryodhana.One of the heads and both torsos are listed as gifts from Douglas A. J. Latchford (a British citizen living in Thailand who has a vast collection of Khmer antiquities). The New York Times journalists contacted Mr. Latchford, 80, in Bangkok, he gave some interesting information:
he came upon the three items when they were the property of Spink & Son, a London dealer known for its sales of Asian art. “Spinks had had the pieces for some time,” Mr. Latchford said, “and they had not sold, so in honor of the curator, who was Martin Lerner, they requested that I would provide financial aid to donate them, and that’s what I did and why they are in my name.” Mr. Latchford said that he did not know where Spink had gotten the items, that he never took possession of them, and that he does not have any documents from the transaction. He recalled spending about £10,000. A spokesman for Spink said it no longer has any of the paperwork from that era. The family that donated the head of the other statue in 1987 also found it at Spink, a year before the gift, and said it had not come with any information on its provenance. Marsha Vargas Handley, the wife of Raymond G. Handley, one of two donors, who has since died, said the purchase price was $42,000.It will be recalled that Spinks (suppliers too of the ACCG illegal import stunt coins) was also mixed up in the story of the other Koh Ker statues in the news recently... Note the interesting discrepancy in prices, one knocked-off head Spinks was able to sell, without its torso (which it seems to have had), for 42000 green ones, but a few years later they were glad to offload the other bits for a far smaller sum. Perhaps most collectors on being shown the stuff were more cautious about its legitimacy than the Met.
In the wake of the Sotheby’s case Cambodian officials have formed a task force to return artifacts removed from their country and possibly held by American and other foreign museums.
Source: Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumental, 'Cambodia to Ask Met to Return 10th-Century Statues', New York Times, June 1, 2012.
Additional note: Kimberley Alderman has a rather scathing post about this story here, taking issue with a side-point to the main issue: 'New York Times to Assign Cultural Heritage Articles to Uninformed Generalists'("it’s not really a story yet because Cambodia hasn’t actually asked the Met to return anything. But, apparently, they will. That’s fine, ask away, and then we’ll discuss it"). In my opinion, there is something here to be thinking about before the Cambodians get their request on paper - and even if they do not.
If there were indeed twelve statues in the group, do specialists know where the other eight are? I don't suppose it would do any harm to ask Spink's...