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Aussie museum returns ownership of Khmer statues

The three bronze sculptures on display in Australia and to be returned to Cambodia in 2026. National Gallery of Australia
The three bronze sculptures on display in Australia and to be returned to Cambodia in 2026. NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA

Aussie museum returns ownership of Khmer statues

The ownership of three looted ancient bronze sculptures has been returned to Cambodia by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), although they will continue to be displayed in Australia until 2026. The handover event was held on July 28.

The NGA said the sculptures were illegally exported from the Kingdom, and were all connected to the late art collector and dealer Douglas Latchford, who passed way while awaiting trial for dealing in illegally sourced antiquities. The three statues are the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, Bodhisattva Vajrapani and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, and date to the 9th and 10th centuries.

The museum said that the decision to return these sculptures came after years of research, an evolving framework for decision-making and the implication of Douglas Latchford in the illegal export of and trade in antiquities.

It reported that the handover event was held during an Australian visit of representatives of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and their repatriation research team, including lawyer Bradley Gordon, who is acting for the Cambodian government.

“We are grateful for their support in identifying the place of origin of these culturally significant sculptures and are pleased we can now return them to their rightful home,” said NGA director Nick Mitzevich, in a press statement.

Cambodia ambassador to Australia Cheunboran Chanborey described how the return of the sculptures demonstrates the power of culture, which transcends geographical boundaries and connects people across space and time.

“Returning looted artefacts to their countries of origin can have significant and positive impacts on local communities and their involvement in preserving their cultural heritage. It can foster a sense of pride, national identity and cultural continuity, as artefacts hold immense value for the communities to which they belong,” he said.

“These particular three art works will definitely enable the different communities of Cambodia to better understand their rich culture and diverse traditions,” he added.

The museum said that the three sculptures will continue to be on display at the National Gallery for up to three years before their physical return in 2026.

Australian ambassador to Cambodia Justin Whyatt to took social media to share his feelings.

“I am really pleased that National Gallery of Australia has returned three Cambodian bronze sculptures. I met the Cambodian team before they travelled to Australia for the handover. They are passionate about Cambodia's cultural heritage,” he tweeted.

Cambodia had called on all dealers, collectors and all museums around the world to cooperate to return the Kingdom’s looted artifacts back to their origin country. Many pieces have been received from museums in the US in recent years, along with a large portion of Latchford’s personal collection.


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