PHNOM PENH, Cambodia–Three ancient sandstone sculptures were repatriated Tuesday to the Royal Government of Cambodia at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jeff Daigle participated in the ceremony with Kingdom of Cambodia Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sok An.
They welcomed the return of 10th-century Duryodhana, Bhima and Balarama statues. The repatriation followed an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
The three pre-Angkorian sandstones statues were believed to be looted from Prasat Chen at the Koh Ker temple complex during the Khmer Rouge era and trafficked on the international art market. When the Duryodhana was offered for sale by an auction house in 2010, the Royal Government of Cambodia requested assistance from the U.S. government in recovering the statue.
Joint efforts by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, the U.S. Department of State, HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York led to the voluntary return of the statues to Cambodia. The auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, returned the Duryodhana and the Balarama, respectively. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, returned the Bhima. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned two more statues in June 2013 to Cambodia. All the statues will be on display to the public in the National Museum of Cambodia, reunited with their pedestals.
An presented Daigle with a medal of honor in recognition of the U.S. government’s cooperation in securing the repatriation of these statues and contributions to the protection of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Secretary of State for the Ministry of Culture Chuch Phoeun, HSI Attaché Phnom Penh JP Galoski and representatives from the Norton Simon Museum and Christie’s also attended the ceremony.
“These precious symbols of our heritage have returned to their rightful owners. Our warm congratulations go to all those who, from the HSI team throughout the investigation process, and from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in litigation before District Court, have ensured the strict enforcement of legislation on illicit trafficking in cultural property. Their professionalism was exemplary and they deserve our admiration and praise,” said An.
“Although some would have us believe that looting is a “victimless’ crime, the truth is that looting robs all of humanity of an irreplaceable connection to our past. The repatriation of these statues both demonstrates the strengthening commitment of American collectors and institutions to adhere to the highest ethical and legal standards in acquiring objects and reaffirms the U.S. pledge that our country will not serve as a safe haven for illegally acquired art and antiquities,” said Daigle.
“HSI is proud to partner with the Southern District of New York to return these statues to the people of Cambodia after a more than 40-year absence,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge James T. Hayes Jr. “HSI is committed to continuing to be the dominant force in preserving and maintaining the integrity of cultural symbols throughout the world.”
The United States and Cambodia entered into an agreement in 2003 to restrict the importation into the United States of certain Khmer antiquities. Since then, the U.S. government has partnered with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Ministry of Interior to train Cambodian police in preventing and investigating crimes at cultural heritage sites. It has also assisted judges and prosecutors in developing a comprehensive strategy for prosecuting cultural property crimes and provided more than $2 million for cultural preservation projects throughout Cambodia.
According to the National Museum of Cambodia, 97 Cambodian artifacts have been repatriated from the United States to Cambodia over the past two decades. These efforts highlight the commitment of the United States to safeguard Cambodia’s cultural legacy and illustrate the deepening bonds of cooperation, friendship, and mutual respect between the people and governments of our two countries.
On July 17, 2010, ICE repatriated seven antiquities to Cambodia. The agency also repatriated one antiquity to Cambodia July 30, 2007.