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Press release

The Metropolitan Museum of Art to Transfer 14 Sculptures to the Kingdom of Cambodia

A seated sculpture located inside a crate with two art handlers adjusting the interior of the box

Following The Met’s December 2023 announcement of their deaccession and repatriation, the works will now be physically returned to the care of Cambodia

The returns follow the launch of The Met’s Cultural Property Initiative, which includes a focused review of works in the collection as well as the recent hiring of a newly-created Head of Provenance and additional dedicated provenance researchers.

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(New York, July 2, 2024)—The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today that it is physically returning to the care of Cambodia 14 sculptures that the Museum deaccessioned last year. The repatriation follows the launch of The Met’s Cultural Property Initiative, which includes undertaking a focused review of works in the collection as well as the hiring of Lucian Simmons in a newly-created Head of Provenance position and additional provenance researchers. The 14 works, along with two sculptures already returned to the Kingdom of Thailand, were deaccessioned in December 2023 in connection with the Southern District of New York’s investigation of dealer Douglas Latchford. The Museum is continuing to review its collection of Khmer art and remains in constructive dialogue with Cambodia.

“The Met is committed to the responsible collecting of art and the shared stewardship of the world’s cultural heritage,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and Chief Executive Officer. “We have made significant investments in accelerating the proactive and collaborative research of our collection, and we are dedicated to acting promptly when new information arises—as demonstrated by this group of sculptures. This is a milestone moment in our ongoing work, and we are honored to collaborate with Cambodia on this return. The Met greatly values our open dialogue with Cambodia, and we will continue to actively engage with colleagues there to arrive at constructive resolutions that further ongoing efforts and advance the world's understanding and appreciation of Khmer art and culture.”

The works of art being transferred were made between the 9th and 14th centuries in the Angkorian period and reflect the Hindu and Buddhist religious systems prevailing at that time. A number of the sculptures—including the bronze masterpiece The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease (late 10th–early 11th century), and the monumental stone Head of Buddha (7th century)—remained on view in the Museum’s galleries for Southeast Asian art, presented as the repatriated heritage of Cambodia, while arrangements were being made for their return.

At the time that the Thai and Cambodian works were deaccessioned, Mr. Phnombootra Chandrajoti, Director-General of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department commented, “We are very pleased that the Met has reached out to us and proactively proposed the return of these two objects to Thailand. This act serves as a model for ethical collecting practices and strengthens the bonds of cultural respect and collaboration between Thailand and the Met. We view this return as a significant milestone in our ongoing efforts to repatriate cultural treasures, and we hope it inspires further partnerships as we work together to foster the exchange of knowledge and to ensure the return of cultural artifacts where appropriate to their countries of origin. In Thailand, the committee for repatriation, chaired by the Cultural Minister, is actively engaged in research initiatives to identify and track down additional objects that may have been illegally removed from the country in the past, further paving the way for a future where cultural heritage is preserved and valued in its rightful place.” 

Additionally, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said, “We appreciate this first step in the right direction. We look forward to further returns and acknowledgments of the truth regarding our lost national treasures.”

The Met has partnered in the past with both Cambodia and Thailand. In April 2024, The Met and the Kingdom of Thailand signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) formalizing a shared commitment to collaborate on exchanges of art, expertise, and the display and study of Thai art. Additional collaborations include the major international exhibition Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century curated by The Met in 2014, which featured major loans from the national museums of Cambodia and Thailand. The Met has also worked with Cambodia on prior repatriations: In 2013, The Met voluntarily returned to Cambodia two objects known as the “Koh Ker Kneeling Attendants,” which were also associated with Mr. Latchford. This move was described as “historic” by Cambodian officials and paved the way for other repatriations to that country and cemented the Museum’s strong and productive partnership with its cultural leaders.

About The Met’s Cultural Property Initiative 
In spring 2023, The Met announced a suite of initiatives related to cultural property and collecting practices that include undertaking a focused review of works in the collection; hiring additional provenance researchers to join the many researchers and curators already doing this work at the Museum; further engaging staff and trustees; and using The Met’s platform to support and contribute to public discourse on this topic.

The Met has made significant progress in a number of these areas in recent months, building on earlier initiatives. In March 2024, The Met announced the appointment of Lucian Simmons to the role of Head of Provenance. The filling of that new role along with additional new and expanded provenance research positions brings to 11 the number of Met employees engaged on provenance research alongside the curators, building on the Museum’s many decades of extensive provenance research and information sharing across numerous areas.

In April 2024, The Met initiated the transfer of ownership of a third-millennium BCE Sumerian sculpture to the Republic of Iraq, after provenance research by Met scholars established that the work rightfully belongs to Iraq. The repatriation was marked by a ceremony in Washington D.C. with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, His Excellency Mohamed Shia’ Al Sudani; Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to the United States of America, His Excellency Nazar Al Khirullah; United States Ambassador to Iraq, Alina L. Romanowski; and from The Met, Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director for Collections and Administration; and Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. 

In February 2024, The Met and the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining future cooperation on educational initiatives, exhibitions, and exchanges of scholarship and expertise, building on a decades-long partnership that has yielded many important collaborations, most recently the exhibition Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE in 2023. Other recent agreements include the transfer of ownership of two stone sculptures to the Republic of Yemen following provenance research conducted by Met scholars, and an ongoing engagement with the Nepalese government that led to a decision to return a 13th-century wooden temple strut and stone stele of a Vishnu triad.

The Met has launched object webpages for all restituted works of art—specifying that the object has been returned and to what country—as part of a commitment to transparency. The Museum has also embraced a New York State law passed in August 2022 that requires museums to publicly identify any artworks in their collection that changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era (1933–1945) due to involuntary means, with more than 50 updated object labels now installed. 

Additionally, The Met began its “Cultural Heritage Now” convening series in spring 2023. The first panel highlighted provenance research underway at The Met, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The second program focused on international partnerships, featuring presentations on the Rubin Museum’s partnership in Nepal and The Met’s Indian Conservation Fellowship Program. The most recent talk reflected on the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act and its ongoing impact on communities and museums. Details on the next program will be announced in the coming weeks.

Further information on The Met’s collecting practices and activities is available online.

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July 2, 2024

Contact: Ann Bailis
Communications@metmuseum.org

 

Image caption: A late 10th–early 11th century bronze sculpture of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is prepared for repatriation to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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