Cambodia wants the Met to return dozens of Khmer Empire relics looted during the country’s wartime

Cambodian artifacts

Cambodia is demanding an explanation from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on how relics from the Khmer Empire ended up in its possession. 

Recovering stolen treasures: Cambodian authorities are focused on 45 items that they believe were looted from the country during war and then acquired by the museum between 1977 and 2003, The New York Times reported.

  • In the claim, Cambodia’s Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona cited a former temple looter known only as “Lion” who reportedly admitted to ransacking numerous Khmer shrines between the ‘70s and the ‘90s.
  • Accompanied by Cambodian officials, Lion revisited the sites where he and others stole the artifacts. The items were later sold through brokers in Thailand.
  • Lion, who is currently in his 60s, claimed that he personally stole 33 of the 45 items in question. He has reportedly apologized for taking part in the looting and now wants the antiquities to be returned to Cambodia.
  • Sackona expressed shock and disappointment in the number of Cambodian statues in the museum.
  • “We want to see the truth come out, we want to see all the facts come out about this. We want them all returned,” the official was quoted as saying.
  • In addition to the 45 artifacts, Cambodian officials are also looking into some 150 items which were purportedly stolen from their country as it was enduring war and genocide from the 1970s to the 2000s.

Met’s response: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has since responded to assure Cambodian officials that they have a “long and well-documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate.”

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  • In a statement, the Met expressed its willingness to “cooperate with any inquiry” and revealed that it has reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which recognizes Lion as a credible looter, has assisted Cambodia in recovering similar artifacts in the past.
  • In a high-profile 2013 case, two 10th century Cambodian stone statues, which had been on display at the Met for nearly two decades, were eventually returned to Cambodia, according to the Associated Press.
  • Earlier this year, a private owner who purchased relics from Lion also voluntarily returned one looted artifact.

Repatriation of looted or stolen cultural artifacts from Western museums back to previously occupied countries remains a struggle despite efforts and demands from governments.

Featured Image via Met Museum

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