Friday, June 1, 2012

Breaking News: Another Repatriation Claim for Khmer Antiquities



I just received an article a few moments ago from a colleague, written by NY Times authors Tom Mashburg and Ralph Blumenthal. It concerns a new repatriation case to get two c. 921-945AD statues ("The Kneeling Attendants") that likely stood at Koh Ker before their theft in the 1970s returned to Cambodia. This time, the Met is the defendant, with the Cambodian government's cultural heritage division (APSARA) and UNESCO currently assembling the evidence for this claim. 

In the Met's defense, the article attests that internal investigation in 1997 resulted in the return of a 10th c. head of Shiva to APSARA. However, from my own visits there in 2010 at least, I can attest that many of the prehistoric artifacts on display, due to their types and rarity (especially grave goods), have much more suspect origins. Their newest acquisitions policy, on paper, is supposed to be very strict in terms of all antiquities having pre-1970 provenance, but...?

The article alleges that these statues would have stood mere yards from the standing statue (referred to as Duryodhyana) that the US and Cambodian governments are trying to get returned by Sotheby's. All these peaces were connected to the London auction house Spink & Sons in the 1980s, likely arriving in London via Bangkok after being looted during the chaos of the Khmer Rouge regime. If the testimony of local villagers given in the article that the temple "had been virtually unmolested" before the 1970s is true, then this would add to the case, but the doubt expressed as to their origins by the individual who originally purchased them from Spinks is worth noting.

If Spinks really did loose the paperwork, this will make the case harder to prove. The Met's current Director of External Affairs is here on record giving the standard argument that Western museums have some sort of right/obligation to acquire cultural property/heritage at all costs, "especially if, by doing so, they might be protected from disappearance completely from public view and from study." While this may seem noble, it can never excuse arranging, relying on, or condoning obvious looting in order to flesh out one's 'encyclopedic' museum shelves.

On the other hand, however, Cambodia was in a state of turmoil and these pieces very well could have been destroyed if Koh Ker was bombed... I won't deny that cases like these are far more complicated than dealing with prehistoric SE Asian antiquities on the market, but the high profile nature of these statues should at least encourage all possible information to be gathered. All we can do is stay tuned as  this newest case develops.

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