US museum returns tenth-century Khmer statue to Cambodia

Torso of Rama has been returned to Phnom Penh. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Torso of Rama has been returned to Phnom Penh. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Cambodia has welcomed home a tenth-century Khmer statue that was looted during the country’s civil war before spending the past three decades at an American museum.

The sandstone Torso of Rama statue, which stands 62in high and is missing its head, arms and feet, was formally handed over at a ceremony in Phnom Penh attended by government officials, the US ambassador and the director of the Denver Museum of Art.

The museum said it acquired the statue in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York City but only recently learned new facts about its provenance.

“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 ... for its return home,” Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s director, said.

Cambodia’s secretary of state Chan Thani thanked the museum for voluntarily returning the piece, which he said shows its sensitivity to Cambodian culture.

“The return also highlights the serious looting in the past that had occurred in our country and the government’s efforts to repatriate those artefacts that left the country illegally, which are parts of our soul as a nation,” he added.

The statue will be returned to its home at the Prasat Chen temple on the Koh Ker temple complex in Siem Reap province, which is also home to the famed Angkor Wat complex.

It is the latest artwork returned to Cambodia in recent years.

Among the galleries that have repatriated art are the Guimet Museum in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sotheby’s auction house, Christie’s auction house and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadea, California.

Yim Nolson, an official in charge of Cambodian culture, said the statue was stolen during the civil war in the 1970s and later transported to the US.

“Now after a long journey, he is finally back home,” he said.

In January this year a French museum returned the head of a seventh-century Hindu statue to Cambodia 130 years after it was taken.

The statue, a representation of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, had its head taken in French colonial times.

It was returned by the Guimet Museum in Paris at Cambodia’s request.

A Cambodian culture ministry spokesman said joining the head to the statue felt “like we are reconnecting the soul of our national heritage”.

“According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity,” deputy prime minister Sok An said at a ceremony in Cambodia’s National Museum.

The complete statue had stood in the Phnom Da temple in southern Takeo province before its head was shipped to France in 1886.

Cambodia has not ruled out allowing France to display the complete statue, known as Harihara, in the future.

Over the past few years, Cambodia has sought to return artefacts taken by other countries without permission.