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Campbell/Cambodia: Metropolitan Museum’s Principled Repatriation of Looted Khmer Statues

Flanking the entrance to Gallery 249: The Met's 10th-century Koh Ker “Kneeling Attendants,” to be returned to Cambodia

Flanking the entrance to Gallery 249: The Metropolitan Museum’s 10th-century Koh Ker “Kneeling Attendants,” to be returned to Cambodia
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In deciding to repatriate two important 10th-century Koh Ker stone statues of “Kneeling Attendants,” on public display in its permanent collection galleries for almost 20 years, the Metropolitan Museum has set a gold standard for museums’ cultural-property policy, going far beyond what the Association of Art Museum Directors mandates. (AAMD’s antiquities guideslines refer to future acquisitions, not to dicey objects that are already in museum collections.)

But the Met’s salutary influence on future practice could be even more powerful if the Met had been more transparent about the facts and circumstances that it weighed in arriving at its highly principled decision.

Here’s the only explanation that the Met provided regarding its decision process, in the announcement it released on Friday:

The Met recently came into possession of new documentary research that was not available to the Museum when the objects were acquired. The decision follows a recent meeting in Phnom Penh between senior museum officials and representatives of the Cambodian government.

I asked Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs, for more details about the findings in the “new documentary research” and for a description of the “facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition,” that were mentioned by Met director Tom Campbell in the museum’s official announcement.

Here’s his reply:

We’re just going to leave it at what the announcement reported: New research, not only from UNESCO but also, quite frankly, from previous reports in the press convinced us to initiate the return.

I also asked if the Met would be sharing its information and decision-making process with other institutions that own Cambodian antiquities from the same region, sharing similar provenances. Some of these have been identified by Jason Felch in last Friday’s LA Times and his Chasing Aphrodite blog (three separate links).

Holzer replied that the Met has “not been asked to share information. We also believe that facts are unique, object to object.”

Maybe so, but there is undoubtedly some commonality in the facts, findings and documentation (or lack thereof) among these objects (as well as the Koh Ker statue that the U.S. Government is attempting to seize through still unresolved legal action against Sotheby’s). Collegial discussion about these issues and how best to resolve them (without triggering prolonged legal battles and possible federal seizure) would help advance the field towards amicable, proactive resolutions of these skirmishes in the cultural-property wars.

What’s particularly admirable in the Met’s approach it that it didn’t wait for a formal claim, but proactively (in Holzer’s words) “took the initiative to review the information presented, to conduct our own research—which we do on an ongoing basis for objects throughout the collection—and then take the initiative to return the “Kneeling Attendants.”

This voluntary review is in line with the first public remarks that Campbell made about the Cambodian statues, shortly after the first press reports about their dubious histories appeared.

At the the Met’s press lunch last June, Campbell noted that “no formal claim” for the sculptures had yet come from Cambodia. He then added:

We welcome any additional information about the provenance of these or any other contested objects and I think it’s inevitable that as a result of the mandate I gave our staff a year and a half ago to get all our collections online, we are going to see a number of cases like this coming forward.

In the spirit of our new collecting guidelines [my link] which we adopted just as I took over from Philippe [de Montebello] in late 2008, we are fully committed to dealing with such claims with transparency [emphasis added].

What I would say to you as the press is that’s our commitment. Please just recognize that the circumstances surrounding the way in which objects arrived at the museum over the decades vary on a case-by-case basis. There has been a tendency sometimes to see things in very black-and-white terms and I think it’s so important in this era, when museums are moving into embracing a whole new approach to acquisition, particularly of antiquities, [that] we also look to the press to be sensitive to the complexity of the situation.

The other important piece of the Met’s amicable resolution involves the museum’s expressed hope that the Cambodian restitution will “strengthen the good relationship it [the Met] has long maintained with scholarly institutions and colleagues in Cambodia and…foster and celebrate continued cooperation and dialogue between us.” The Met’s 2006 repatriation agreement with Italy involved pledges of cultural cooperation.

When the Met recently announced its far-reaching cultural cooperation agreement with India, I thought that this too might have been, in part, motivated by the desire for amicable resolution of any claims that country might have regarding objects it received from dealer Subhash Kapoor, accused by federal authorities of possessing smuggling antiquities:

“Pot,” India, 1st century BC, 2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor  Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Pot,” India, 1st century BC, 2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Michaela Boland of the Australian recently reported that the National Gallery of Australia may be facing Kapoor-related claims from India.

Regarding the Met’s agreement with India, Holzer said this to me:

The cooperation agreement with India is totally unrelated to patrimony issues. The Met returned an illuminated manuscript to India some 10 years ago—after discovering through its own research that it belonged with a volume in Delhi—but has no active issues.

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