The long struggle to return Cambodia’s looted treasures

By Crispin Paine

A recent BBC News report describes the Cambodian government’s request for the return of statues and carvings from the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, that it claims were looted from temples during the Khmer Rouge regime.

10th century Shiva and Skanda statue recently returned to Phnom Penh from the collection of a UK dealer

This though is not just another restitution claim or international art-theft story. It involves issues and beliefs key to all who care about the material culture of religion, and the role of the sacred in collections.

Bases of statues taklen by looters

‘The statues are definitely not just the stone for us. We believe the statues have souls,’ the BBC reports Sopheap Meas, an archaeologist on the (extraordinarily enterprising, it seems) Cambodian investigative team, saying. She explains that to Cambodians, a statue can contain the soul of a king, a god or maybe an ancestor. ‘So when the head was cut and the foot, the leg was destroyed, it’s just like people and somebody cut off their heads… They need to come back to our country, our people because people need to pray.’

RCHG will follow this story closely.

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