|One of the “Kneeling Attendants. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)|
May 3, 2013
By TOM MASHBERG and RALPH BLUMENTHAL
The New York Times
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return to Cambodia two 10th-century Khmer statues that Cambodian officials had declared were looted from a jungle redoubt and given to the Met in stages more than 20 years ago.
On Friday the museum confirmed accounts from Cambodian officials that it intended to repatriate the statues, known as the “Kneeling Attendants,” life-size sandstone masterpieces that flanked a doorway in the Met’s Southeast Asian galleries.
No timetable has been set, but the museum told Cambodian officials in a letter last month that it hoped to send them as soon as “appropriate arrangements for transit can be mutually established.”
Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, said the agreement — one of the more significant in a recent spate of often controversial cultural repatriations — followed new documentary research by the museum that corroborated Cambodian claims that the works had been improperly removed from their site at the Koh Ker temple complex.
“This is a case in which additional information regarding the ‘Kneeling Attendants’ has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today,” Mr. Campbell said in a statement to The Times.
In a phone interview from Cambodia, Chan Tani, secretary of state, Office of the Council of Ministers, said he was excited by the news of the return.
“This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for,” he said. “This also will further strengthen the excellent cooperation between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its Cambodian counterparts in the area of cultural heritage cooperation.”
Experts say the statues appear to have been looted around 1970, about the time federal prosecutors say another statue, of a mythic warrior figure, was also removed from Koh Ker. That statue was pulled from auction at Sotheby’s last year after Cambodia asked for its return. The United States moved to block the sale, and the case is pending in federal court in Manhattan.
Sotheby’s has said that it applied all appropriate standards of provenance research before it agreed to auction the statue for $3 million on behalf of its Belgian owner. The auction house said it expected to prevail in court when the case goes to trial this year.
The “Kneeling Attendants” came to the Met in a series of gifts that began in 1987 when the British art house Spink & Son and the international art collector Douglas A. Lachford donated one of the two heads. A second head was donated by Raymond G. and Milla Louise Handley in 1989. The two torsos were gifts of Mr. Latchford in 1992. The matching heads and bodies were reattached by museum conservators in 1993 and placed on display the following year.
Tess Davis, a researcher on Cambodian antiquities with the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research in Glasgow, said the Met’s gesture should serve as a signal to other American museums that have Cambodian antiquities with provenances that are sketchy.
“The Met could have treated Cambodia’s request as an obstacle,” she said. “Instead, the museum recognized it as an opportunity to set the moral standard for the art world.”
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