Phnom Penh National Museum Becomes Richer as Stolen Artworks Return to Cambodia

Angkorian art at Guimet Museum in Paris

War and the need for money -generally in the purpose of financing criminal activities- are the main driving force for depriving Cambodia of its precious hsitorical heritage for many decades. While French during the colonial time did not hesitate to remove some of precious art pieces to fill up museum collections in Paris – particularly the amazing Asian Art Guimet Museum- stolen art business picked up during the Khmer Rouge times and after as the Pol Pot gruesome regime was in desperate need for money.

As Cambodia reopened its doors to the world in the early nineties, greed and profit have been the main motivation to further plunder Cambodia’s archeological sites including Angkor Wat and its myriad of temples…

Still today, it is possible to see at some of Bangkok art galleries pieces of Khmer art dating back from the Pre-Angkorian or Angkorian time- although the interest of art dealers shifted to Myanmar in recent years as Cambodia tightened laws on antique exports. 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 owners abroad to return them.

Guimet Museum in Paris
Guimet Museum in Paris

A good trend today is to see looted antiques being returned to Cambodia. And even better, looted pieces of art are back in Cambodian museums and on display for visitors. Since 2013, a dozen of art pieces have been back to the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

It started in June 2014 when three 1,000-year-old statues depicting Hindu mythology were brought back to Cambodia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York already returned in 2013 two statues from its extensive collection. The twin, sandstone, 10th-century Cambodian statues known as The Kneeling Attendants are now on display at Phnom Penh National Museum.

In October of last year when a Norwegian private collector Morten Bosterud returned two stone statues from the Angkor period that were looted during the country’s civil war and taken to Europe. The sculptures are a 9th century head of Shiva and a late 12th to early 13th century male divinity head.

In January this year, a stone sculpture depicts Harihara, a deity that combines aspects of Vishnu and Shiva, which was taken from the Phnom Da temple in southern Takeo province by French researchers in 1882 or 1883 has been officially handed over to Phnom Penh National Museum. The ceremony of reattaching the head to the torso after 130 years was attended by 200 government officials, ambassadors and the head of Guimet Museum. “After it was separated 130 years ago, we are welcoming the reunification of the head and the torso of Harihara,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony. “According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity.”

Last week, officials from the Denver Art Museum handover to the Cambodian Government a 10th century old statue. Called the Torso of Rama, the headless sandstone statue was looted from the Koh Ker temple during Cambodia’s civil war. Denver Art Museum acquired the piece some 30 years ago and only realized recently that it had been stolen after discusssions with Cambodian authorities.

The Cambodian government is appealing to other countries that hold Cambodian artifacts to return them as long as they have been looted. The Kingdom has been receiving the support of UNESCO in its fight to get back some of its priceless heritage back home. Especially as Cambodian museums are now of world standard in terms of safety and conservation and do not put at risk the exposed pieces.