Archaeologist Sees Progress in Recovering Looted Antiquities

Nou Sotheavy / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Archaeologist and lawyer Tess Davis weighs in on the significance of repatriated ancient Khmer antiquities during an Amcham event on August 5. (KT Photo: Sotheavy Nou)

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The return of an ancient statue of a Hindu deity looted from a temple deep in the jungles of the Koh Ker region was a pivotal victory in Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim its stolen heritage.
The 10th-century sandstone statue of Duryodhana, valued at more than $2 million, was pulled off the auction block in 2011 after a long and tortuous legal battle.
Its return to Cambodia “pushed forward a movement” to repatriate other antiquities stolen from the Kingdom, archaeologist and lawyer Tess Davis said during a recent lecture organized by the American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham).
Ms. Davis, whose research into Cambodia’s national archives has provided legal ammunition to help recover the country’s cultural treasures, said early 20th century laws identified the nation’s antiquities and art as state property. 
Ms. Davis said the sale of the Duryodhana statue was thwarted after appeals by Cambodian authorities, who argued that the cultural treasure had been pillaged from the Prasat Chen temple complex by unidentified looters in the 1970s. New York auction house Sotheby’s agreed to return the stolen artifact.
Last May, New York auction house Christie’s agreed to return an ancient statue of a mythical Pandava to Cambodia after buying it back from the collector who purchased it in 2009. Norton Simon Museum in California also announced it would repatriate a bust of the warrior Bhima that it had acquired from an American art dealer in 1976. 
Both sculptures, which depict mythical warriors from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, were looted from Prasat Chen temple decades ago. They are believed to be part of the same collection of 10th-century temple artwork that included the stolen Duryodhana statue.
“Scholars have identified other statues from Koh Ker – likely stolen at the same time and by the same people who stole the Duryodhana and Bhima – at museums in Cleveland and Denver,” Ms. Davis said.
If the auctions had taken place in Europe, the objects would probably not have been returned, she commented, adding that European countries are less proactive in returning stolen antiquities.
With growing awareness among international museums,  many have adopted a policy to display pieces purchased before the 1970s and return anything acquired after that.
Ms. Davis said she is amazed at how Christie’s has actively tracked down artifacts sold through its auctions and assisted in returning them to their respective home countries.
Although several stolen Koh Ker statues have already been returned, Ms. Davis said she expects a long campaign if Cambodia is to recover the thousands of looted Khmer antiquities on display in museums and private collections around the world.
Ms. Davis hailed the efforts of Cambodian authorities to protect their nation’s cultural heritage by drafting tighter legislation, suggesting it could snowball into a broader movement.
.“It will inspire a new generation of art lawyers here and in turn, inspire the government and even private firms to focus on this area of the law,” she added.
Ms. Davis and her colleagues are in the process of publishing their fieldwork on Cambodia’s illicit antiquities trafficking networks. They have also created a hotline for citizens to report newly discovered antiquities or stolen artifacts.
She recently inaugurated an exhibition in Angkor Wat on the threat of looting at the ancient temple complex and has written a children’s book about antiquities preservation entitled “If the Stones Could Speak.” 

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