|Prasat Chen temple, which may be the home of some statues being returned to Cambodia and others in legal limbo. (Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)|
May 15, 2013
By TOM MASHBERG
The New York Times
Buoyed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision this month to return two stolen statues, Cambodia is asking other museums to examine any Khmer antiquities they acquired after 1970, when a 20-year period of civil war and genocide gave thieves free range to loot the country’s ancient temples.
“We are calling on all American museums and collectors, that if they have these statues unlawfully or illegally they should return them to Cambodia,” Ek Tha, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the nation’s governing body, said this week. They “should follow the Metropolitan’s lead,” he added.
Hundreds of Cambodian antiquities are in American museums, as well as in the hands of foreign institutions and private collectors. Many were acquired after 1970 and lack paperwork showing how they left Cambodia.
Today, most museums have pledged not to collect items that lack a paper trail dating back to 1970, the year that a United Nations convention aimed at blocking illicit antiquities trafficking was adopted. Cambodian officials say they are particularly interested in statues they believe came from the same temple where the Met’s pair stood and are thought to have been taken illegally after 1970.
That thousand-year-old temple, called Prasat Chen, featured two narrative groupings of sculptures illustrating tales from Hindu epics. The groupings had about a dozen statues in all, and six of them have been traced to the United States.
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.
The Norton Simon Museum says it is cooperating with federal officials who inquired about its statue as part of their investigation into the provenance of the sculpture held by Sotheby’s.
Cambodian officials have yet to contact the Denver or Cleveland museums, but said they plan to. Spokesmen for those museums said they could not comment fully until an actual claim on their statues was made.
There has been no suggestion of impropriety on the part of any of the museums, nor have the museums acknowledged, as the Met has, that the items come from Prasat Chen and their provenance might be questionable. 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.
The Met’s decision came after two officials visited Cambodia and came away convinced that its items were looted from Prasat Chen, part of a vast complex in the jungle called Koh Ker. It was the seat of the Khmer empire from 928 to 944 but is now a remote collection of ruins surrounding a 120-foot pyramid about 200 miles northeast of Phnom Penh.
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.
Cambodians say the statues in Denver of the god Rama and in Cleveland of the monkey god Hanuman came from an ensemble that once depicted a fierce fracas between monkey kings as recounted in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. The statue of the battling monkeys, Valin and Sugriva, is in a national museum in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Kristy Bassuener, a spokeswoman for the Denver Art Museum, said the Rama statue was acquired in 1986 with money from several patrons. She said the museum does not have any other information about its provenance.
“The museum is committed to further research regarding the history and provenance of objects in its collection,” she said. “If the museum learns new facts related to this piece, I would be happy to share that information.”
Asked about the Hanuman’s provenance, David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, pointed to information on the museum’s Web site, which says the figure was acquired in 1982 with money from by the Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund.
“It is the museum’s policy not to discuss publicly the substance of these types of inquiries,” he added, “unless and until there is a definitive resolution.”
The fund did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts say the Norton Simon statue, known as the Bhima, or wrestler, comes from a second Prasat Chen grouping, about 200 feet away, that depicts his brawl with Duryodhana, as told in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The Duryodhana statue is now held by Sotheby’s.
The Met’s two statues represent brothers of Bhima who knelt in attendance during the fight. The Met’s statues were acquired in four pieces from donors 1987 to 1992. Those statues, plus the one from Sotheby’s, are known to have gone through a London art dealer, Spink & Son, in the early 1970s.
Cambodian officials say the broken pedestals of all those sculptures were left in the ground by the looters.
Norton Simon, who died in 1993, bought the Bhima in 1976 from a Madison Avenue Asian art dealer and gave it to the museum in 1980. “In more than three decades, the foundation’s ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned,” the museum said in a statement.
The Sotheby’s statue was shipped to New York in 2010 to be sold at auction by its Belgian owner, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa. Her husband, who has since died, acquired it in 1975 and Sotheby’s estimated its value to be $2 million to $3 million.
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.
In their case against Sotheby’s, lawyers for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York say the statue was one of many shipped illicitly from Bangkok to the United States and Europe after 1970.
Sotheby’s says the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 and it “denies knowledge that the Duryodhana statue was stolen.”
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.”
Ralph Blumenthal contributed reporting.
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