The Denver Art Museum has returned a statue looted from the archaeological site of Koh Ker to Cambodia. The Torso of Rama was one of many sculptures from the Prasat Chen temple looted by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war in the early 1970s and sold through unscrupulous dealers to major museums and private collections in the US. The Denver Art Museum acquired it in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York and had it on display until last December.
A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed on Friday, 26 February, that the work had arrived in Cambodia. “As part of our own collections research, the Denver Art Museum contacted our museum colleagues in Cambodia to gather more facts on the Torso of Rama piece in the museum’s collection,” the museum’s director, Christoph Heinrich, said in a statement. “We were recently provided with verifiable evidence that was not available to us at the time of acquisition, and immediately began taking all appropriate steps to deaccession the object and prepare it for its return home. In addition to our return of this piece, during this process we have crafted a collaborative relationship with our Cambodian colleagues, and are looking forward to developing cooperative projects and programs that will benefit museum goers and collections in Denver and Phnom Penh.”
I apologize for the tiny pictures (you know this hurts me more than it hurts you), but this repatriation is such momentous news I couldn’t not post about it. The Torso of Rama was the last Prasat Chen statue in a US museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned the Kneeling Attendants in May of 2013. Sotheby’s returned the statue of warrior Duryodhana in December 2013. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena returned Duryodhana’s enemy Bhima in 2014. At the same time, Christie’s bought back a statue of Balarama it had sold twice, once in 2,000, once in 2009, specifically to return it to Cambodia. Last year the Cleveland Museum returned a statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Now the Denver Art Museum, the last public holdout, has finally caved. American museums are officially no longer in the business of taking advantage of the Khmer Rouge’s brutalizing of the 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire.
That leaves only three or four statues missing from Koh Ker (exact numbers are hard to pin down). We don’t know where they are because they are almost certainly in private collections. Unfortunately that means they can remain hidden indefinitely as long as sales are arranged privately rather than through auctions or in some other manner that attracts publicity. Given what two major international auction houses and four US museums just went through, I doubt the holders of these stolen artifacts will do anything that draws attention to their loot.
Anne Lemaistre, Unesco representative to Cambodia, reached out to those shadowy figures in the wake of Denver’s return of Rama.
“To have all of the statues returned to Cambodia is something Unesco has been working hard to achieve, and we appeal to anyone who may currently have one of the remaining statues in their private collection to follow the nice gesture of the Denver museum and return it,” she said.
The return of Rama will give Cambodia the opportunity to reconstruct the figure grouping at the eastern gate of Prasat Chen. Rama and Hanuman are believed to have stood there, along with two other monkey deities locked in battle that are now in the National Museum of Cambodia. This New York Times graphic from 2013 explains where scholars believe the looted statues were originally located in the temple complex. All of the statues in that graphic are home now.