Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Cambodia Presses U.S. Museums to Relinquish Antiquities

The New York Times has an article which is the follow-up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent decision to return two statues to Cambodia. This refers to the several other museums that own works believed to have been taken from the same 10th-century Khmer temple, Prasat Chen, part of the archaeological site Koh Ker, and ended up in the United States. Cambodian officials and scholars from the French School of Asian Studies in Paris have tracked down six statues that they believe were looted from the temple.
Cambodia says the Denver Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., each have one statue connected to Prasat Chen. Two other statues, a pair of kneeling attendants that had flanked a doorway in the Met’s Southeast Asian galleries for two decades, are to be returned next month. A sixth statue, which is the subject of a federal court case in New York, is held by Sotheby’s, which withdrew it from auction in 2011 after a complaint from Cambodia. The United States Justice Department is seeking to seize the statue on Cambodia’s behalf, but Sotheby’s officials say it was acquired legally by its owner. The auction house said it does not believe the Met’s decision will affect its case. Experts say, however, that the return may create pressure on the other three museums to review the provenance of their statues. “If other museums are confronted with the kind of evidence that the Met was provided, I believe the Met’s actions will serve as an appropriate example for them to follow,” said Stephen K. Urice, an associate professor and expert on cultural heritage and museum law at the University of Miami School of Law. 
There is an excellent presentation here - From Jungle to Museum and Back? which puts the known statues in the context of the site itself and the plan of the temple. It gives the date of acquisition of the items in US museums, and if we assume that they were looted at the same time as those presently contested (ie c. 1970/71) it raises the issue that several of them must have been ("orphan" - see here) objects in some private collection or other after dismemberment. That of course raises the question of how many other knocked-off fragments are still in private collections today, in danger of (as Arthur Horton puts it) being exposed to an uncertain fate in private hands, "many will deteriorate, or be destroyed, or go into the [underground] trade in other countries". It is time to make an effort to track them all down and get them back where they belong, which is Cambodia and not a Wisconsin or Maryland back room, or as trophy art in a Belgian aristocratic drawing room for that matter. 

Many collectors of Khmer art say that their efforts and those of museums actually served to safeguard statues that might have been destroyed during Cambodia’s war years.[...] Eric Bourdonneau, an archaeologist and expert on Koh Ker with the French School of Asian Studies who works in Cambodia, said he made the connection to the Denver and Cleveland items in part after studying the remnants of the statues — bases and feet — at the temple. “It was deliberate destruction by modern looters whose spoils fed the art market,” he said [...]  the broken pedestals of all those sculptures were left in the ground by the looters. [...]  Experts on antiquities trafficking say teams of bandits used ox carts to trundle their trophies along jungle trails and into Thailand, 15 miles north, during Cambodia’s war years. [...] Cambodia’s secretary of state, Chan Tani, said the looting of Koh Ker is especially crushing because its style of statuary exists nowhere else. “They are part of our soul as a nation,” he said, “and they were brutally stolen.”

Give them back.

See Tom Mashberg, 'Cambodia Presses U.S. Museums to Relinquish Antiquities', New York Times May 15, 2013.

Vignette: Cambodia, source of much freshly-surfaced knocked-off "art"

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