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Ashmolean Museum questioned over looted Cambodian artefacts

Ana Lanzon reports.

The Cambodian government has called on British museums to return statues and artworks that were looted during a period of civil war and political unrest between 1975-1979. The looted pieces are scattered amongst the Western art scene after being smuggled to art markets. Cambodia’s ministry of culture is attempting to enable their return in a drawn-out and complex process. 

As part of this investigation, a 10th century statue in Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum has been called into question by Cambodian government delegates. The statue, in the “India from 600” room, came into the museum’s permanent collection in 1999 and depicts the Buddhist deity of wisdom Prajnaparamita holding a rosary and a sacred text in her upper hands.

Having once stood within a temple site called Prasat Ta Muen Thomtemple, the statue’s journey to the UK has aroused concern over its provenance. The temple site was controlled and looted by the Khmer Rouge during its brutal regime in the 20th century. Cultural looting came to fund guerrilla campaigns, and the temple’s abundant treasures have since made their way into the black market. The statue has been deemed “highly suspicious” by Brad Gordon, the Cambodian delegation’s legal adviser for its arrival at the Ashmolean in the 90’s. The area was “a no-go zone well into the 90’s” according to Gordon. Documents have been requested to detail the statue’s arrival at the museum, to explain how the plundered object has made its way into a collection in the West.

In response to the delegates’ requests, the Ashmolean has pledged to assist Cambodia’s government campaign in the restitution of looted artefacts. Investigations will be conducted into other objects that have raised suspicion, including a stone figure of a lion, its experts say.

The investigation into the presence of Cambodia’s plundered artefacts in the UK is the latest phase in the campaign, as 30 antiquities were returned from the US in August 2022. The British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum were also called upon in May 2022 to investigate the provenance of objects from Cambodia or identified as ‘Khmer’. In a letter to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Culture at the time, Cambodian culture minister, Phoerung Sackona mentioned that many pillaged artefacts would have “passed through the hands of Douglas Latchford”, a late British art dealer, explaining their presence in the UK.

“This was a time of conflict. The whole world knew it. Large museums like the British Museum or the V&A, they shouldn’t have accepted these pieces,” said Cambodia-based lawyer Brad Gordon in May 2022.

Image Credit: Remi Mathis/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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