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The relics of Koh Ker

UNESCO’s Anne LeMaistre and APSARA’s conservator for Koh Ker, Sueng Kong.
UNESCO’s Anne LeMaistre and APSARA’s conservator for Koh Ker, Sueng Kong. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The relics of Koh Ker

When archaeologists chose to dig around two stone pedestals at the western entrance of Prasat Chen in Koh Ker temple complex in August 2012, it was a turning point in Cambodia’s search for its lost antiquities.

The uncovered pedestals had already been identified as bases for missing statues of Bhima and Duryodhana, figures from the Mahabharata Hindu epic.

Archaeologists from the APSARA Authority, the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) and UNESCO had compared them with characters in a decorated tablet above a doorway from Banteay Srei temple in the Angkor complex and suspected that the western entrance, or gopura, at Prasat Chen might have once been home to the same characters.

They were correct. In their excavation, they unearthed seven more pedestals, meaning that there had originally been seven more statues that had been looted from the spot.

Many Cambodian antiquities have been lost or reside overseas. The French Protectorate oversaw the transfer of many to France, and more were destroyed or looted during Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s.

Much of the debate about the subject has centred on this one temple in the Angkorian site of Koh Ker. The temple is becoming more and more significant, said Anne LeMaistre, the UNESCO representative in Cambodia. “What is fascinating is that this is a black hole we have in the history of the Angkor empire, and it’s being filled,” she said in her Phnom Penh office earlier this week.

However, it has also become the centre of a row that has seen Cambodian cultural and governmental authorities clash with museums in the United States, most recently, the Cleveland Museum in Ohio.

Once the pedestals were unearthed in 2012, conservators and archaeologists began putting pieces together. Two pandava brothers, or kneeling attendants, in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were identified as belonging to the western gopura because of their specific size. They were returned to Cambodia last year, and are now in Phnom Penh’s National Museum.

“It’s very easy to recognise the style of Koh Ker, because statues are extremely massive and at the same time extremely defined,” LeMaistre said.

In December last year, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum all announced that they would return three statues from Prasat Chen’s western gopura. A delegation from Cambodia is in the United States arranging the shipment of the statues back to the Kingdom.

According to Hab Touch, director-general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, they are expected to arrive back by the end of the month, with an official welcoming ceremony in early June. They will then be placed in the National Museum, where a room dedicated to Koh Ker artefacts is being prepared.

However, the room will be missing four of the nine statues at Prasat Chen’s western gopura. The location of three of the missing statues – Dhrishtadyumna, Krishna and one of the pandava brothers – remains unknown, but probably in private ownership, LeMaistre said.

Neither the Conservation d’Angkor nor the National Museum could be reached for comment on whether they will add this statue to the museum’s collection.

Prasat Chen’s eastern gopura

Now that more statues are being repatriated, there are more questions about relics from Prasat Chen’s eastern gopura that are believed to be in the Cleveland Museum and the Denver Art Museum in the US. These statues tell the story of that other well-loved Hindu tale, the Ramayana, the Khmer version of which is the Reamker. Two fighting monkeys are already in the National Museum.

But the figure of the monkey god Hanuman is believed to be in Cleveland Museum, and the torso of Rama in the Denver Museum.

The Balarama statue is coming back to Cambodia.
The Balarama statue is coming back to Cambodia. SOK SANGVAR

Cleveland recently announced that its curator, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, came to Cambodia on a trip and had “proof” that Hanuman wasn’t from Prasat Chen. However, she didn’t mention whether or not it might have been looted from elsewhere.

LeMaistre said that neither she nor the EFEO nor APSARA had any idea that the curator was in the country. “We should have crossed our data because I don’t know what she did, where she did it, what she wrote; because she did not ask the right questions to the right people and because some people know here, and have the evidence,” she said.

“EFEO, APSARA and UNESCO – we have proof that these fragments come from these statues [in Prasat Chen],” she added.

According to LeMaistre, Sharon Levin, the District of Attorney for New York who won the legal battle with Sotheby’s on behalf of Cambodia, has approached Cleveland. Levin had not responded to 7Days’ questions at the time of going to press.

Tess Davis, a lawyer and researcher with the University of Glasgow who focuses on the illicit antiquities trade, said that the way the Cleveland museum carried out its research was suspicious.

“If the Cleveland wanted to know the Hanuman’s true story, they would have followed the examples of the Met and Christie’s, and worked with their colleagues in Cambodia, France and UNESCO,” she wrote in an email.

“Their little expedition proved nothing.”

Davis added that on the museum’s website, it says the statue is from Koh Ker, and spokespeople have so far not denied this. Cleveland could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Other statues

With so much focus on Koh Ker, what of other Cambodian statues in overseas museums? The Musée Guimet in Paris, for instance, is home to a number of Cambodian artefacts.

According to Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the Guimet’s retaining of these shows a sense of entitlement similar to that of the French Protectorate.

“Because Cambodia was a French colony, they thought it was their right to take it out, not to return it. There’s not an international convention that requires these to be returned, so the French feel like they own it, like Cambodia belongs to them,” he said at his office earlier this week.

According to LeMaistre, however, there is a difference between objects that have been looted and those which were taken out of the country during the French Protectorate.

French explorer and artist Louis Delaporte brought the collection to France at the end of the 19th century, she said, in order to educate the French about Khmer art.

“I think Delaporte was actually the promoter of Khmer art, he brought them for this purpose, not for commercial trafficking,” she said.

“At that time unfortunately, Cambodia was under the French protectorate.

“But they came out of Cambodia with the permission of the legal authorities at that time.”

Davis added that the reason why focus is on looting from Prasat Chen and not artefacts in museums such as Guimet is that it’s common knowledge the statues there were looted during the 1970s’ civil war.

“Prasat Chen is unique because we know when its statues were looted, by whom, how and where they are today”, she said.

Of Cleveland, she added: “Their purchase of the Hanuman, when Cambodia was . . . at war with the Khmer Rouge, would not be allowed by their own ethical guidelines today.”

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