August 10, 2022
PHNOM PENH – Thirty stolen 10th century Cambodian artefacts will soon be returned from the US, including some statues which weigh up three tonnes.
In an August 8 press release, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said the objects have been seized by civil forfeiture actions in connection with cases brought against the illegal possession of artefacts.
The cases were brought by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, in collaboration with US Homeland Security Department investigations thanks to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the governments of the two nations. The MoU concerns the Imposition of import restrictions on the archaeological material of Cambodia.
According to the press release, among these cultural treasures are several important Buddhist and Hindu statues, including extraordinary sculptures of Skanda on a Peacock and Ganesha. The statues were removed more than two decades ago from the temples at Koh Ker, the 10th century royal capital of the Khmer Empire. Koh Ker was the target of major looting operations during the civil war.
Cambodian ambassador to the US Keo Chhea, US Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Lee Satterfield and attorney-general for the Southern District of New York Damien Williams participated in a New York City repatriation ceremony for the 30 antiquities, it added.
Culture minister Phoeurng Sackona said Cambodia is thrilled to welcome these precious treasures home, each of which represents the awe-inspiring past of the Khmer Empire.
“This repatriation is made possible thanks to cooperation between the governments of our two countries and the peace that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s win-win policy brought to the Kingdom. These two factors enable the treasures to return to the motherland, where they will be surrounded by the souls of our ancestors, and finally come to rest in their true homes,” she said.
Hab Touch, head of the General Department of Cultural Affairs, told The Post that the ministry was working with an art logistics company to arrange the transportation of the artefacts to Cambodia, noting that there will be a further announcement when they are due to arrive in the Kingdom.
“It will take some time to pack these objects correctly, as each of the pieces is different. Some of them weigh up to three tonnes, and with their irregular shapes, they must be supported and their loads borne appropriately. Small items are easily packed, but objects of this size require careful planning by specialists,” he said.
He said the ministry aims to have the artefacts back in the Kingdom by late September.
On behalf of the government, Sackona extended her gratitude and praise for the cooperation provided by various US institutions, in particular the southern district attorney’s office, homeland security department and the US embassy in Phnom Penh.
She also extended her appreciation to those museums and private collectors for voluntarily returning the Kingdom’s national treasures. As part of a global call for action, she urged museums and private collectors around the world to share provenance documentation and to repatriate cultural properties to their rightful owners.
Prominent historian professor Sambo Manara told The Post that while Cambodians need to value existing national heritage, they should bear in mind the ancient artefacts that were lost during the war and turmoil suffered by the Kingdom.
He added that the continuous discovery and return of these artefacts was a positive thing not just for Cambodians, but for the cultural heritage of humanity.
“What is so regretful is that so many of us do not even know what we lost. It is thanks to the morals of the people who return these treasures that we can begin to appreciate the scale of our ancestor’s achievements,” he added.