Cambodia confronts The Met with spreadsheet of ‘looted antiquities’

New York: Cambodia is pressing the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to document how it acquired dozens of Khmer Empire antiquities that Cambodian officials, citing new evidence, believe were looted during the country’s decades of war and tumult.

Although Cambodia has pushed the Met and other museums in recent years for the return of individual statues and sculptures it says were pillaged between 1970 and 2000, this effort is far broader. Cambodian officials said they have developed a spreadsheet of 45 “highly significant” items at the Met that the evidence suggests were stolen before being donated or sold to the museum.

A stone statue, known as a “Standing Female Deity”, one of 45 ancient artefacts Cambodian officials say were looted.Credit:Met/The New York Times

Officials with the US Attorney’s Office, which has previously assisted Cambodia in recovering illicit antiquities, met with museum staff members last week to request they review the provenance of a number of the items, Cambodian officials said.

Federal officials declined to comment on any discussion with the museum’s staff, and the Met would not address the specifics of what Cambodian officials are describing as a rigorous new effort to reclaim their cultural heritage.

The Met said it was following its “long and well-documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate”.

A man pointing in the foreground, who has been identified as “Lion”, a former looter of antiquities, by Cambodian officials, guides government excavators around a pillaged Khmer temple. Credit:Cambodian Ministry of Culture/The New York Times

The scope of the Cambodian initiative, according to those directing it, is fuelled by years of expanded legal investigation and archaeological research and by the disclosures of a former temple looter who admits to organising the plunder of dozens of Khmer shrines from the 1970s to the 1990s.

That man, whom Cambodian officials refer to only as “Lion”, has spent two years escorting officials to dozens of remote sites where, Cambodians say, he and his gang systematically uprooted and carted away for sale massive stone statuary, intricate bronze sculptures and ceramic burial jars filled with royal gold and jewels.

Cambodian Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona said the former looter’s information was critical to identifying the 45 Met items that officials have focused on. They have also inspected the dates of the museum’s acquisitions and physical evidence like chiselled stands and broken remnants found at the original sites. Of the 45 artefacts, she said, Lion recognised 33 as items he removed himself and another 11 as matching the appearance of statues stolen by others.

In addition to the 45 items listed on the spreadsheet, Cambodian officials said they had questions about roughly 150 other artefacts in the Met’s collections.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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