...but this is only the start of the battle to recover all the national antiquities living in exile in the West. By Andrew Buncombe and Kounila Keo
Buddhist monks bearing flowers chanted blessings and sprinkled sacred water. Government officials smiled. Everyone wanted to be present for the return of the statues.
Four decades after they were snapped from their pedestals in a jungle temple and secretly shipped out of the country against the backdrop of civil war, a pair of 10th Century stone statues of intense cultural importance, which are known as the Kneeling Attendants, were returned to Cambodia yesterday. It was the first instance of antiquities allegedly looted from the country being willingly returned by an institution, and experts say there could be thousands more.
"It was a very special occasion. This is the first time something that was taken has been returned to Cambodia," said Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist who was present to see the arrival of the wooden crate containing the statues. "It's very important [that] people in Cambodia know about these statues." The return of the life-size statues, which portray a scene from a Hindu religious epic, marks the end of a twisting tale that pitched the Cambodian authorities against one of the world's most respected museums.
Last month, after intensive consideration and having dispatched its own experts to Cambodia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it would accede to the request of the government in Phnom Penh and return the pieces. But the return of the sandstone carvings is just part of the story. Cambodia believes at least three other major US museums are holding improperly-obtained pieces and that the Met itself possesses another twelve. It is also involved in legal proceedings against Sotheby's auction house over another statue. Globally, there could be thousands of such items.
The Kneeling Attendants have for the past 20 years stood either side of the doorway that opens into the Met's South-East Asian collection, having been donated to the museum located on New York's 5th Avenue in four pieces as separate gifts between 1987 and 1992. But their original home was in the Prasat Chen, one of up to 180 sanctuaries spread out over 30 square miles at the Koh Ker archaeological site, 75 miles from the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, where the famed Angkor Wat site is located. The Khmer city flourished between the years 928-944.
Experts believe the statues, and others from the site, were taken between 1967 and the mid-1970s, a period when Cambodia was engulfed in the fall-out of the war between the US and Vietnam and when the Khmer Rouge rebels were plotting their strategy in the jungle. After the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, launching a failed agrarian revolution that left 1.7 million people dead and triggering an invasion by the Vietnamese, the country became effectively shut-off for a decade.
When the Met announced its decision last month, it said it had obtained three of the four half-pieces from Douglas Latchford, an 81- year-old British arts dealer living in Bangkok, who had sent one piece via the London-based auction house, Spink & Son. The fourth was a gift from an American, the late Raymond Handley.
Mr Latchford could not be contacted on Tuesday, though he has previously denied any wrong-doing. A spokesman for Spink & Son said the inquiry related to an issue dating "a long time before our current ownership and current categories of expertise". …