Making My Peace … with returning artefacts to Cambodia
The Phnom Penh Post announced, on 12 September 2023, the return of a ‘famed’ American family’s collection of artefacts to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Thirty-three pieces of Khmer cultural heritage will soon return home.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement with the Lindermann family for the voluntary return of cultural artefacts.
They include precious artefacts from the 10th-12th centuries, removed from Cambodia in the 1990s, ‘most likely by looters.’ There is a 10th century sculpture depicting Ardhanarishvara, a half-male, half-female deity, and a 10th century Anantashayana Vishnu, a reclining Vishnu with Lakshmi, looted from the Krachap temple in Koh Ker, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire. Some artefacts were removed from the gates of Angkor Thom.
The US Attorney said, ‘For decades, Cambodia suffered at the hands of unscrupulous art dealers and looters who trafficked cultural treasures to the American art market. This historic agreement sets a framework for the return of cultural patrimony in support of the Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Cambodia. We thank the Lindermann family for their cooperation and assistance in the repatriation of the antiquities to Cambodia.’ Since 2012, America has successfully investigated, identified, and repatriated 65 stolen and illegally imported Cambodian antiquities in the possession of individuals and institutions in the US, added the Attorney’s Office press release.
The Cambodian cultural minister announced her own statement.
She said that the government was pleased the Lindermanns had acknowledged that they were in ‘wrongful possession’ of the artefacts and will voluntarily return them to their rightful owners. ‘The return sets an excellent example for the other museums and private collectors that we have asked to return our national treasures. We are delighted that after more than three years of efforts by the US government, with the strong support of the culture ministry’s restitution team, these extraordinary masterpieces are now being returned.’
The cultural minister offered her praise and profound gratitude to the Attorney’s Office and the US Department of Homeland Security, and to all of the other institutions – domestic and abroad – to ensure the return of the precious pieces. She congratulated the Lindermann family on their decision.
She added, ‘We are proud of our joint efforts and excellent cooperation with the US with respect to restoring Cambodia’s cultural heritage. These returns significantly contribute to the reconciliation and healing of the Cambodian people.’
In Cambodia, with the US government, I was previously involved in assessing the ‘trafficking in persons’ – human trafficking. Trafficking comes in many different ways – humans, drugs, weapons, artefacts. Healing comes in many different ways too – individually and for a country.
Who has the right to the inheritance of past relics? It is often not a simple question with a simple answer.
Cambodia’s museums of cultural history are well-visited by nationals and internationals alike. The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, ceramics, sculptures, bronzes, and other ethnographic objects – across time periods and across the south-east Asia region. The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is an archaeological museum of Angkorian artefacts, in the province of the famed Angkor Wat temple complex – considered to be the largest religious structure in the world.
Returning cultural artefacts to a rightful country may be extremely complicated, controversial, and time-consuming, especially when ownership is contested and cultural politics is at play, or collusion between the colonised and the colonial masters are evident, or governments are involved instead of known individuals or families, or future preservation and/or presentation of the artefacts to the public are in doubt, or a host of other factors. But, as this example shows, it does not have to be acrimonious – angry and bitter.
Making my peace with returning artefacts to Cambodia, I learned the following:
- Healing a nation heals individuals
- Treasuring artefacts treasures the heritage of a nation’s people
- Honouring the past honours the present
- Returning means to come back to a place and to people
- Returning reflects the moral rights of the rightful owners
- Returning artefacts enables a nation to learn from their past and reflect on their history and identity
- Visiting museums and cultural sites is more than a memory, and more than a tourist ‘must-see’ – it is a way of paying respect to a nation’s heritance and its people’s inheritance