ABA Journal

How countries are successfully using the law to get looted cultural treasures back


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Photo of one of the Kneeling Attendants
courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

For two decades, a pair of monumental statues guarded the entrance to the Southeast Asian galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. These days, all that remains of them are two faint patches on the floor where they stood until a year ago.

On May 20, 2013, the millennium-old statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, disappeared. They were gently wrapped, crated and moved to a backroom so they could be returned to Cambodia, their country of origin.

The Kneeling Attendants date back to the 10th century, the heyday of Cambodia’s Khmer empire. They were part of a temple complex called Koh Ker. In the early 1970s, when Cambodia became engulfed in a turbulent civil war, looting was rampant, and Cambodia’s rich collection of temples was robbed of statuary and other valuable examples of the Khmer empire’s cultural heritage.

The Kneeling Attendants were cleaved neatly along the feet to separate them from their base before disappearing into the murky shadow world of smuggled art. Eventually they surfaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cut into four pieces.

When the statues arrived in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the question of provenance was an afterthought. Moreover, Cambodia—still struggling to recover from its civil war and political instability—was unlikely to press a case over the antiquities.

But Cambodia and other war-torn nations have come to recognize that large portions of their cultural heritage have been lost to looters and disreputable art dealers, and they have begun to publicize the losses in a concerted effort to get these antiquities—and their cultural heritage—back. Museums, facing a spate of bad publicity and recognizing their role in protecting cultural heritage, have begun to tighten up internal policies regarding provenance.

Click here to read the rest of “Looted Beauty” from the July issue of the ABA Journal.

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