Light is finally being shed on the issue of restitution of looted art

The restitution of Cambodian statues by major museums and auction houses is an encouraging sign


Sixteen years ago I retraced the wanderings of Portrait of Pastor Adrianus Tegularius, 1666, by Frans Hals, which was stolen in 1943 by the Gestapo from an Alsatian Jewish family. Between 1967 and 1989, it was presented four times at auction in London and New York. In 1979 Sotheby’s stated in its catalogue that the work was in a 1947 French listing of work illegally seized by the Nazis. Ten years later, Christie’s did not mention this when they put it up for sale. It seems likely that no one thought to contact all of the heirs of the Schloss family—from whom it was stolen—before putting the work under the hammer. 

Such conduct would be unthinkable today. The pillage of Europe’s great art collections by Hitler’s regime has undeniably given rise to a much more ethical position among dealers, curators and collectors alike. [Sotheby’s and Christie’s now conduct careful provenance research around Nazi-era art.]

The same transformation is way overdue when it comes to dealing with the continuing desecration of archaeological sites. The outcome of the case involving several Cambodian statues, revealed by media including The New York Times and The Art Newspaper (September 2013, p50), is the latest sign that this may be starting to happen. 

The Metropolitan Museum was the first to return two of the four seated warriors, known as Pandavas, pillaged from the royal site of Koh Ker. As with the return of Roman statues looted from Italy around six years ago, this triggered a domino effect. Sotheby’s, which held another warrior from the same group and had argued that the current owner held the work legitimately, returned the statue last month at its own expense. The Norton Simon Foundation in California, which also said it held its sculpture legally, has become the latest institution to commit to returning a work from the same temple.

But the most significant gesture has come from Christie’s. The auction house is not giving out details but it appears that—on its own initiative—it bought back a damaged fragment from another statue identified as Balarama, sold to a collector five years ago. It proposed to pay for its return to Cambodia. The discussion with its client started well before Sotheby's settlement. Christie’s also sent a vice-president from New York and an expert from Hong Kong to a Unesco workshop on illicit trafficking, held in Kathmandu last December.

And so, the Cambodians are finally starting to put the pieces of their heritage back together. After hesitating for so long to reclaim these works dispersed across the United States, considering the battle lost before it started, they must be savouring this surprising turnabout.

These impressive life-size statues sculpted in sandstone are on their way to the Phnom Penh Museum, where they will be exhibited in a special room after restoration. I had the privilege of seeing the two Pandavas from the Metropolitan in the restoration workshop there, moving witnesses of the Khmer Kingdom at the height of its glory in the tenth century. For Cambodians, their return is a fitting conclusion to the drama they have been a part of since the civil war in the 1970s. 

But the story is not yet over. There are other statues from Koh Ker in other museums, such as Cleveland and Denver. In Denver, the museum employed as a consultant Emma Bunker, an associate of the Bangkok-based British adventurer Douglas Latchford, who is linked to the initial export of all these works, sold through Spink in London. [The current company Spink & Son Ltd was incorporated as a new legal entity in 2002, under entirely separate ownership from the entity that was involved with Latchford.]

The Koh Ker statues are a textbook case affecting dealers, museums, private collectors and experts alike. The major breakthrough came when French archeologist Eric Bourdonneau reconstituted the scene from the Hindu epics in which the warriors figured in the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker. Acting on a complaint from Cambodia, the federal district attorney in New York went to battle against Sotheby’s until it decided on its return.

One of the biggest legal obstacles for restitutions is the difficulty in establishing the date that the goods were looted and shipped (before or after the 1970 Unesco convention, for example). To overcome this legal obstacle, a growing number of judges are turning the tables and placing the onus of proof on the holder of the goods, requiring him to prove good faith and produce the relevant export certificates. Last year, the American Association of Art Museum Directors revised its guidelines “to pursue voluntary standards for acquisitions that are stricter than the requirements of applicable law”.

It’s not a question of raking over situations inherited from past centuries, at the risk of multiplying claims that could threaten the great universal collections in London, Paris or Berlin. In the words of Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, these collections should be considered as the cultural heritage of humanity. The ongoing pillage of Roman cities, Cambodian temples or Peruvian pyramids is another situation altogether, where ethics must come first.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The message about looted art is finally getting through'