Three 1,000-year-old statues depicting Hindu mythology were welcomed home to Cambodia on Tuesday after being looted from a temple during the country’s civil war and put in Western art collections.
The pieces were handed over at a ceremony attended by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and U.S. diplomat Jeff Daigle after being returned by the U.S. branches of auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and the Norton Simon Museum in California.
Cambodian officials say the statues were looted in the 1970s by being hacked off their bases in the Koh Ker temple complex in Siem Reap province, also home to the Angkor Wat temples.
A 1993 Cambodian law prohibits the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission. Pieces taken after that date have stronger legal standing to compel their new owners abroad to return them. But there is also general agreement in the art world that pieces were acquired illegitimately if they were exported without clear and valid documentation after 1970 — the year of a U.N. cultural agreement targeting trafficking in antiquities.
The three statues are representations of the mythological Hindu figures Duryodhana, Balarama and Bhima.
Their return marks a step forward in efforts to bring back together nine figures that once formed a tableau in a tower of the temple. The scene captured a famous duel in Hindu mythology in which the warrior Duryodhana is struck down by his cousin Bhima at the end of a bloody war of succession while seven attendants look on.
Two statues from the same temple that had been displayed for nearly two decades at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were returned to Cambodia last November. The voluntary return of the pair of “Kneeling Attendants” statues by one of America’s foremost cultural institutions was seen as setting a precedent for the restoration of artworks to their places of origin, from which they were often removed in hazy circumstances. . . .”