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Cambodia Presses Metropolitan Museum of Art Over ‘Looted Artworks’

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City recently announced that it would be reviewing the ownership of 45 antiquities of Cambodian origin that it currently has in its possession. According to a statement issued by the Manhattan-based gallery, Cambodian officials contacted the world-renowned art museum to say they thought the objects had been stolen from the country. The museum’s statement went on to ready that it had already alerted the US Attorney’s office following the approach and that it was acting after ‘new information’ had come to light on their provenance.

According to a report in the US press, Cambodian government officials had called on the Metropolitan Museum of Art to review its ownership credentials of what appears to have been looted works of art. It appears that a collection of ancient artefacts were taken from the Southeast Asian state sometime in the latter half of the last century. The report stated that representatives from the US federal law enforcement office, met with museum staff in late October to demand a formal review of the objects in question. The US Attorney’s office has worked with the Cambodian government before to help it reclaim looted antiquities from the country that have been in the US for some time. It described the artworks at the museum as ‘highly significant’ artefacts – objects that dated back to the Khmer Empire, a dynasty that dominated the region from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries.

A spokesperson for the Met said that it was the gallery that had prompted the discussions with US law enforcers rather than the other way round. A statement was issued that stated recent new information regarding some pieces in the museum’s collection meant that it had ‘reached out’ to the federal authorities. “We will be happy to cooperate fully with any enquiry,” the statement read.

Historical Looting

According to US press reports, the artefacts in question were probably taken from Cambodia between 1970 and 2000, a period which covers the time when US forces were fighting in neighbouring Vietnam. In that thirty-year period, including the time after the US military had withdrawn from the peninsula, Cambodia went through a tremendous amount of political upheaval that included both genocide and a bitter civil war. It is further understood that it was at some point within that time period that the artworks came into the Met’s possession.

The Met’s statement on the investigation stated that it enjoyed a ‘long and well-documented’ track record of responding openly to claims regarding the ownership of works of art in its possession. “[We have]… restituted objects when it has been appropriate to do so and been transparent about the provenance of all the works in the collection,” the statement read. Furthermore, the Met went on to add that it continued to support further research and scholarship in Asian art by sharing all the information it has about the ownership history of pieces it possesses. The Met’s statement went on to add that its leadership team ‘works proactively’ when new information or questions about any artwork it has are raised, reaching out to the authorities if appropriate given the circumstances.

Lost Cambodian Art

Earlier in October, an international consortium of journalists reported via the Washington Post that the Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has 12 artefacts of Cambodian origin that were once owned or sold by the late art dealer, Douglas Latchford. According to information gleaned from the so-called Pandora Papers, Latchford had a long-standing involvement in handling looted antiquities, some of which were trafficked from the region. Nevertheless, it remains unknown whether the artefacts mentioned in the report constitute those the gallery now has under review or whether they are separate.

Cambodia’s Minister for Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that she was disappointed to discover that such important works of art had ended up at the Met and that they continued to be in its possession. She said that the Cambodian government had never granted permission for its national treasures to be sent overseas. “Today, we are calling on the gallery to act as both a moral and just leader in the worldwide museum community… [and hand them back],” she said.

The good news for the Cambodian government is that the Met has some form in this regard. It previously repatriated a pair of stolen Khmer-era statues – both of which were connected to Latchford – back in 2013. Elsewhere, the Denver Art Museum made a similar move in the recent past. It announced plans to two return four artefacts to Cambodia after it was established that these, too, had ties to the now-disgraced art dealer. Earlier in 2021, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office forced the restitution of over two dozen objects to Cambodia which had a combined value of $3.8 million. This formed a part of its investigation into two other cases of trafficked Cambodian art.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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