By TOM MASHBERG and RALPH BLUMENTHAL Published: June 1, 2012
The Cambodian government is convinced that two life-size 10th-century statues that have anchored the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Southeast Asian galleries for nearly two decades were looted from a jungle temple and plans to ask for their return.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Kneeling Male AttendantCambodia, Angkor period, Khmer styleof Koh Ker, ca. 921–45.
“The government is very serious about moving this forward, and we are getting much legal advice,” said Im Sokrithy, a director of Apsara, the Cambodian agency that oversees heritage and land management at the sprawling temple complex where, archaeologists say, the statues stood for centuries. “We are taking a forceful position, and we hope they can be returned.”
The twin sandstone figures, called the Kneeling Attendants, flank the doorway of the gallery where the Met displays its small but globally significant collection of artifacts from the glory days of Khmer civilization.
Experts say they appear to have been taken around 1970, at about the same time as a companion piece, a mythic warrior figure that the United States government sought to seize last month on Cambodia’s behalf from Sotheby’s, where it had been placed for sale.
Both cases illustrate Cambodia’s growing interest in restoring its cultural heritage, but the debate is somewhat different when a contested artifact is held by a museum rather than a private collector or auction house. Many in the museum world and beyond have argued that the higher profiles, larger audiences and advanced security systems at some institutions make them more appropriate places to house cherished artifacts and ensure they are available for worldwide study and appreciation.
The Met has previously returned a Khmer item, a 10th-century Shiva head that was given to Mr. Im’s agency in 1997 at the urging of Martin Lerner, the Met’s Southeast Asian curator at the time.
Anne LeMaistre, the Unesco representative in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, said her agency is assembling a report laying out evidence that the Met statues and the Sotheby’s warrior belonged to a 12-statue Khmer empire grouping first broken up when Cambodia was destabilized by civil war.
The Met, which was given the statues by benefactors in four pieces between 1987 and 1992, said it has not been contacted by Cambodia and has no information to suggest the works were stolen. The museum acknowledged that beyond the names of the donors it has no records on the statues’ origins, despite a longstanding policy to investigate the history of donated antiquities.
“No one is concealing anything,” said Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs. “I’d like nothing better that to find more documentation.”
Mr. Holzer cautioned against using current standards for museum collecting to evaluate the propriety of acquisitions dating back more than two decades. “There were no real prevailing restrictions against accepting these works of art,” he said of the period, “especially if, by doing so, they might be protected from disappearance completely from public view and from study.”
The Met’s policy in 1992 allowed it to accept works without a detailed provenance. Such acceptance, though, was supposed to come after an effort had been made to root out the history of a piece in case it was illicit. In recent years, as countries have increasingly sought to protect their cultural heritage, the Met and other museums have adopted a stricter policy. It discourages the acceptance of antiquities like the Kneeling Attendants if they lack a documented history showing they left their country of origin before 1970.
In the wake of the Sotheby’s case Cambodian officials have formed a task force to return artifacts removed from their country and possibly held by American and other foreign museums.
Prak Sonnara, deputy director general for cultural heritage with Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that once the government has compiled evidence to convince the Met of the validity of its claim, he would ask for the statues back “on behalf of the people of Cambodia.”
Mr. Lerner, who was the Met’s Southeast Asian curator from 1972 to 2004, said he could not recall what was done to research the provenance of the attendant statues. He said that contacting the Cambodian government by letter of inquiry — as prescribed in rules laid down in 1971 by a former Met director, Thomas Hoving — was not an option at the time of the gifts.
“Basically there was no government to send it to at the time,” he said. “It was all in a state of disarray at the time.”
Mr. Holzer said the policy of sending such letters was discontinued years ago — he could not say exactly when — because they drew a response so infrequently.
Archaeologists believe the Kneeling Attendants stood for about 1,000 years at the Prasat Chen temple in a vast site called Koh Ker, about 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, said Eric Bourdonneau, who directs a project at the site overseen by the French School of Asian Studies. The Met statues, the experts say, stood a few yards from the Sotheby’s warrior, a figure known as Duryodhana.
“In my opinion, they belong to the government of Cambodia,” said Bertrand Porte, the director of the French School in Cambodia, who leads the sculptural conservation efforts at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, “and should be returned and all reunited and allowed to be together just as they were for 1,000 years.”
The attendants, about four feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds each, were put on display in 1994 when the Met opened its new Southeast Asian galleries. The heads of the two statues had been donated in 1987 and 1989, and the two torsos were given together to the museum in 1992.
Mr. Holzer said he would be surprised if Cambodia sought the return of the statues, because they have been on display for so long and a number of Cambodian officials have toured the galleries without ever raising a claim.
Three of the items — a head and both torsos — are listed as gifts from Douglas A. J. Latchford, a British citizen living in Thailand who has a vast collection of Khmer antiquities and has been knighted by the Cambodian government for returning 14th-century Khmer cultural treasures.
In a telephone interview from Bangkok, Mr. Latchford, 80, said that he came upon the three items when they were the property of Spink & Son, a London dealer known for its sales of Asian art.
“Spinks had had the pieces for some time,” Mr. Latchford said, “and they had not sold, so in honor of the curator, who was Martin Lerner, they requested that I would provide financial aid to donate them, and that’s what I did and why they are in my name.”
Mr. Latchford said that he did not know where Spink had gotten the items, that he never took possession of them, and that he does not have any documents from the transaction. He recalled spending about £10,000. A spokesman for Spink said it no longer has any of the paperwork from that era.
The family that donated the head of the other statue in 1987 also found it at Spink, a year before the gift, and said it had not come with any information on its provenance. Marsha Vargas Handley, the wife of Raymond G. Handley, one of two donors, who has since died, said the purchase price was $42,000.
Mr. Im, the director of Apsara, and Mr. Porte both said the pieces were unique treasures from a brief period in Khmer history when the seat of the empire shifted from Angkor to Koh Ker and the craft of statuary flourished.
Federal prosecutors, in arguing for the return of the Sotheby’s piece, have laid out evidence for why they believe the temple was looted after 1970, during Cambodia’s chaotic and bloody years of civil war, genocide and Vietnamese occupation. They are compiling testimony from villagers who say the temple was virtually unmolested until the 1970s, and the prosecutors noted that until the late 1960s the area lacked the roads needed to carry away large and heavy statuary.
Mr. Latchford, an author of “Adoration and Glory,” a book of Khmer antiquities, who said he has studied their history and origins for more than 40 years, noted that Khmer artifacts have been pillaged for centuries.
Asked whether he thought the three items might have been stolen more recently from Cambodia, he said: “I have no reason to believe it is true or not true. I don’t know.”