The art world has watched this cultural heritage story unfold and it has a happy ending for Cambodia.
This case follows in the footsteps of other recent cases concerning Museums giving back looted or stolen art work, marking a positive shift in favour of the restitution of cultural property.
On 3rd May 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that they would be returning two ancient Khmer statues called the Kneeling Attendants to Cambodia.
The Kneeling Attendants are 10th century, life size sandstone sculptures that originate from the ancient Koh Ker Temple site. They have been on display in the Asia wing of the Met for nearly 20 years.
The statues were donated in series of separate gifts over a period of years, as first the heads were donated; the first head by Spink & Son Ltd and Doughlas A Latchford in 1989, the second head by Raymond G and Milla Louise Handley 1989 and then the torsos were donated Mr Latchford in 1992.
The Met’s website states that the decision was reached following a recent meeting between representatives of the Cambodian government and senior museum officials in Phnom Penh.
Also new documentary research had come to light that the museum was not aware of at the time of the acquisitions.
According to the International Herald Tribune, experts say the statues were possibly looted around 1970.
A connection to the looted artwork is the donor Doughlas Latchford. Mr Latchford is a British, known expert dealer/collector of Cambodian art based in Bangkok.
Mr Latchford is also connected with a mythic warrior Khmer statue from Koh Ker that is the subject of an ongoing claim in Manhattan. Last year, this statue was up for auction in Sotheby’s but following Cambodia’s claim on the item, the sale was blocked and there is now a pending court case.
According to Chasing Aphrodite’s website Cambodia has claims against several American Museums for possessing antiquities that were illegally removed from the ancient site and exported.
The website identifies the Berlin Museums, the Norton Museum; the Denver Museum and the Kimbell Museum as museums that all possess Khmer antiquities that are connected to Latchford.
What is interesting about this case is that no legal claim was presented to the Met and they have proactively engaged with the Cambodian authorities since the news of problems of the provenance of the statues started to come to light.
According to CultureGrrl’s website (Lee Rosenbaum) the Met Museum has gone beyond what is required of them by the Association of Art Museum Directors mandates. (These guidelines on antiquities relate to future acquisitions and not objects that are already in museum collections.)
The Director of the Metropolitan, Thomas P. Campbell said this about their decision to return the Khmer statues:
“The Museum is committed to applying rigorous provenance standards not only to new acquisitions, but to the study of works long in its collections in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history. 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. In returning the statues, the Museum is acting to strengthen the good relationship it has long maintained with scholarly institutions and colleagues in Cambodia and to foster and celebrate continued cooperation and dialogue between us.”
According to the website Chasing Aphrodite Cambodia is now asking for the return of the Hanuman statue at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in addition to the Bhima statue in Norton Simon and the Rama statue in Denver.
As Cambodia pursues its cultural heritage claims, it is worth considering whether this can be seen as an opportunity for the World Museum’s to consider adopting a more unified approach and updating their policies for dealing with claims that potentially relate to antiquities that pre –date UNESCO Convention – the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.
In this case the lootings may technically pre date the actual implementation of the Convention into U.S. law.
However, it was in the wake of lootings in the end of the 1960s and beginning of 1970s where thefts from archaeological sites and museums had increased that led to the UNESCO Convention being created. The very purpose was to seek to prevent the increasing illicit trafficking of cultural property.
For Museums to retain the artefacts in circumstances where the intentions of the law and the commitment by State Parties to the Convention was clear, surely goes against the spirit of the law?
The Khmer statues in a number of American museums therefore present a unique opportunity for these Museums to work together on this issue. It will be interesting to see which Museums will initiate and partake in a dialogue.
If this blog article interests you please see my other recent cultural heritage articles: