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Cambodians Work to Recover Priceless Antiquities

Priceless antiquities - like this statue - were looted from Koh Ker, Cambodia, and have been or are being sold, amid a growing outcry against the legality of doing so.

The proposed sale of an ancient Cambodian statue at Soethby’s auction house in New York has raised new questions about the legality of selling looted ancient artwork. VOA’s Daniel Schearf visited the statue’s original location in Koh Ker and spoke to residents about the loss of their antiquities.

Only the feet remain from two statues more than 1,000 years old that allegedly were cut off during Cambodia’s chaotic 1970s and sold to foreign collectors.

Last year, government complaints halted the auction of one of them, an ancient temple wrestler, worth about $2 million.

Seung Kong is in charge of the Koh Ker temple complex. He said the artwork should not be sold abroad.

“The last of the statues is like the last of our national soul. So, we must claim it so that it stays in our country,” said Seung Kong.

Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Empire for about 20 years before it was moved back to Angkor. It sees only a tiny fraction of the thousands of tourists that Angkor attracts every day.

Security guard Men Sangker partly blames the loss of so many important relics like the missing statue.

“If it was still here there would probably be more people coming to visit. But, since it's not, not many people are coming because there is nothing else to see but these broken stones,” said Men Sangker.

Although no one here said they knew about the missing twin statues, all want to see stolen artifacts returned.

Prim Chen has been living in the nearby village his whole life, but said he never got to see the statue.

“If we can claim it, Cambodia would be prosperous and we could leave it behind for the next generation so they will know this is our ancestor's work,” said Prim Chen.

Cambodian officials agree and are resurrecting a French colonial law to challenge the European owner of the statue.

Seung Kong said, if it is successful, they will try to recover the statue’s twin, at a museum in California, as well as countless other missing pieces of Cambodia’s rich cultural history.