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US Auction Houses Return Two Ancient Statues to Cambodia

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, left, and Cambodian Cabinet Minister Sok An, at a ceremony marking the repatriation of an ancient Khmer statue, which is shown in a picture. (R. Poch/VOA)
An ancient Khmer statue that is being returned to Cambodia by Christie’s auction house. (R. Poch/VOA)
An ancient Khmer statue that is being returned to Cambodia by Christie’s auction house. (R. Poch/VOA)
Cambodia has officially received two 10th Century artifacts looted from the country more than four decades ago.

Sotheby's auction house agreed to return one of the statues after it was sued by the U.S. attorney in New York on Cambodia's behalf. Christie's auction house is voluntarily sending back the second one.

At a ceremony in New York this week, Cambodian Cabinet Minister Sok An said the return of the artifacts should serve as an example to others.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia appeals to all museums and art collectors around the world to follow the examples of returning plundered treasure to their rightful owners as part of the worldwide campaign for the protection of cultural heritage," he said.

The Sotheby’s statue was reportedly stolen in 1972. The company tried to put it up for auction in 2011, but it was pulled at the last minute after a protest from the Cambodian government. The U.S. attorney initiated a case, leading to a settlement in late 2013.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, called on people in the art world to do their part to combat the trade of stolen artifacts.

“Everyone who collects and curates and cares about art needs to be a part of the solution, not the problem," said Bharara. "It my fervent hope that every stakeholder in the art world will be vigilant, will heed red flags and support doing what’s right when it comes to reuniting stolen artifacts with their rightful owners.”

The case against Sotheby's led to the Norton Simon Museum, in Pasadena, California, to agree to a voluntary return of a statue on display there, as well.

Thousands of artifacts have been taken over the years from the Cambodia's northwestern Ankor area, which spans more than 400 square kilometers and includes dozens of temples that are hundreds of years old.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.