Two Khmer statues known as the "Kneeling Attendants" have been returned to Cambodia, after Cambodian officials lobbied for their return from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The 10th-century art works arrived at Phnom Penh's international airport on Tuesday, returning to their place of origin nearly 40 years after they were looted from an ancient Cambodian temple complex.
Taken from the Koh Ker archaeological site during the tumultuous war years of the 1970s and transported to the United States in what was at the time a legal transaction, the statues are now set to be displayed at Cambodia's Peace Palace for an upcoming World Heritage Committee meeting.
They are then likely to be taken to Phnom Penh's National Museum, where they will join a large collection of statues, artifacts, and imagery from the Khmer empire's apogee.
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The statues hail from the Koh Ker complex of ruins located near Cambodia's border with Thailand via a bumpy three-hour-drive from Siem Reap, the location of the more famous Angkor archaeological site. Koh Ker was demined and made safe for visitors only recently, and features the Mayan-pyramid like Prasat Thom as its architectural showpiece.
Cambodian officials have also requested the return of a kneeling sandstone sculpture of the monkey god Hanuman from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which they claim was looted from Prasat Chen, an archeological site located within the Koh Ker complex. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first to comply with the request, but it's thought likely that others may follow.
"We are calling on all American museums and collectors, that if they have these statues unlawfully or illegally they should return them to Cambodia," said Cambodian spokesman for the Council of Ministers Ek Tha to the New York Times.
The Met decided to return the statues after discovering "facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition," according to the Times, evidence which seems to indicate that the statues were obtained illegally during the unrest of the 1970s.
The United Nations outlawed the trafficking of antiquities in 1970 with the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The wording of the act notes that "states Parties to this Convention recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property" — a sentiment that the Khmer officials of today likely sympathize with.