It has been a long wait! Ever since it was discovered that all warrior statues from the grand ensemble at Koh Ker in Cambodia were looted in the civil war in 1970’s after breaking them up and were sold to prominent museums and collectors in the west clandestinely, Cambodian authorities have been trying to get them back to Cambodia.
How did this grand ensemble really looked like in the past before it was destroyed by the looters. Archaeologists with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) have been busy reconstructing the Koh Ker temples with the tools of virtual reality. By sewing together thousands of digital pictures of the sculptures into 3D images, they’ve re-created their original context in the now ruined temples. In all there must have been at least 9 statues as per EEFO recreation. Out of which, two central figures were those of Duryodhana and Bhima, the legendary warriors of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. On one side, waiting in a pose ready for a battle were three Pandawa brothers and on the other side three spectators and the remaining Pandawa brother. The spectators included Krishna and his brother Balrama. The third spectator remains to be identified yet. (You can watch a wonderful video created by EFEO of the grand ensemble on the link given above, which can give how breath taking the original sculpture must have been.)
I have covered this chase by Cambodian authorities for their lost treasures quite exhaustively with number of blog posts and the readers can find a list below. The first break for the Cambodians came last year when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art accepted that two statues of Pandawa brothers in its possession were stolen items and agreed to return them. Interestingly, while giving history of these acquisitions, museum tacitly agreed that they were indeed stolen items. The heads of the two statues had been donated to the museum in 1987 and 1989, and the two torsos were given together to the museum in 1992.Three of the items — a head and both torsos — are listed as gifts from Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British citizen living in Thailand. He says that these three items were the property of Spink & Son, a London dealer known for its sales of Asian art. Spink $ Son requested Mr. Latchford to provide financial aid to them so that the pieces can be given to museum as gift. Marsha Vargas Handley, the wife of Raymond G. Handley, had gifted the other head to the museum. She purchased it for $42,000, again from Spink & Son. Both Latchford and Handley said that Spink & Son never gave them any information regarding how they got the pieces. A spokesman for Spink said that it no longer had any of the paperwork for the statues. The museum acknowledged that beyond the names of the donors it had no records on the statues’ origins, even though it had a longstanding policy to investigate the history of donated antiquities. Finally these two statues were repatriated to Cambodia in June last year, after being displayed at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for two decades.
The New York sleuths working on this case and Cambodian authorities had earlier investigated and had found whereabouts of three more statues from the Koh Ker Ensemble. These included the statues of Dryodhana, Bhima and that of Balarama.
Out of these three, the statue of Duryodhana stranding almost 5 feet tall, was stolen in 1972 and was sold at a London auction in 1975. It was nearly auctioned again at Sotheby's in New York, but the sale was stopped after Cambodian authorities launched an appeal. After much effort the statue was repatriated back to Cambodia in early May 2014. The statue of Bhima was bought in 1976 by the Norton Simon Museum in California and after months of discussions, the museum agreed to return the statue as a "gift" to Cambodia last month. The third statue of ‘Balarama’ was returned as a part of an agreement between the Cambodian government and Christie's auction house in the US.
This means that out of at least 9 statues originally sculptured at Koh Ker, 5 statues are back in Cambodia-a major feat indeed. It is no wonder that Cambodians are celebrating return of these statues. A ceremony was held in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the Council of Ministers on 3 June, 2014 to welcome the statues back. Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, placed a garland on the ancient artefacts and said on the occasion which I quote:
"In a long 40-year journey, surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and travelling the world, these three statues have now regained their freedom and returned home. The facts are now established. These precious symbols of our heritage have returned to their rightful owners," He also added that the government was asking other museums to return similar objects.
There is no doubt whatsoever that it is a joyous occasion for all Cambodians and art lovers from all over the world. It is hoped that balance statues from the grand ensemble would soon be found out and returned back to Cambodia.
Links to previous blog posts.
6th June 2014