November 15, 2022
PHNOM PENH – Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked US President Joe Biden for his country’s efforts to return looted Khmer antiquities to Cambodia. More than 30 artifacts are lined up for repatriation to the Kingdom by the end of the year.
Hun Sen met with Biden on November 12, as Biden attended the ASEAN-US summit. Biden was also due to attend the East Asia Summit on November 13.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked the US for returning looted artefacts to Cambodia. He said the US is the ‘number one’ country in helping repatriate looted antiquities,” said a social media post by the prime minister.
Earlier this month, the US returned a pre-Angkorian-style sandstone statue of the four-armed deity Narayana, or one of the forms of Vishnu. The statue was handed over at the Cambodian embassy in the US, in a ceremony between Keo Chhea, Cambodian Ambassador, and Thomas Acocella, representing the New York County District Attorney’s office.
Huot Samnang, director of the Archeological Department of the General Department of Heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told The Post: “Currently we are preparing documents to repatriate this statue to Cambodia. It will be returned later this year or at the beginning of next year, along with about 30 other statues that the US government returned to us a few months ago.”
According to the Cambodian ambassador, the cost of repatriation is the responsibility of the government of Cambodia.
Pieces of the four-armed Narayana body were stolen from a temple in eastern Cambodia in the early 1990s at the direction of Doris Wiener, a well-known antiquities dealer, according to a press release issued by the Manhattan District Attorney of New York.
It said the pieces of the statue were assembled by Wiener and other accomplices and eventually smuggled into Manhattan in 1995, via Thailand. After the statue arrived in Manhattan, Wiener sold it to a private collector.
“This antiquity was callously ripped away from an ancient temple so it could be sold for profit,” said New York County District Attorney Alvin L Bragg Jr.
“After it was illegally circulating on the art market and in private collections for years, our Antiquities Trafficking Unit, in collaboration with our law enforcement partners, are finally returning this piece home,” he added.
Chhea told the US attorney that Cambodia was grateful its partnership with the US to return priceless antiquities to the Cambodian people.
He also praised the New York County District Attorney’s Office and the US Department of Homeland Security for their diligence and dedication to law enforcement.
“The artefacts that have been repatriated – and others that I am sure will be repatriated in the future – are a vital part of our cultural legacy and our sense of nationhood. They were looted from places where they had been situated in peace for centuries, and they belong in Cambodia,” he said.
According to the press statement, since in the 1960s, Wiener dealt and trafficked in Southeast Asian antiquities, which she sold through her gallery in New York County. She sold antiquities with her daughter, Nancy, until Doris’ death in 2011. In 2016, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office arrested Nancy Wiener, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced in 2021.