The Manhattan district attorney announced today that New York and US federal authorities have returned 27 relics to Cambodia valued at $3.8m that were stolen by antiquities traffickers, among them important Buddhist and Hindu statues.
The probe resulting in the repatriation was led by the district attorney's office and the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit. The HSI’s special agent in charge, Peter C. Fitzhugh, described the works as “invaluable to the preservation of Cambodian history”. A repatriation ceremony was attended by Cambodian and Homeland Security officials.
The district attorney’s office said that 24 of the 27 items were seized as a result of an investigation of Subhash Kapoor, a New York-based antiquities dealer described in the past by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as one of the world’s most prolific art smugglers, and the New York antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener. Kapoor, who is currently in prison in India amid an ongoing trial there, was indicted in New York in 2019 with seven co-defendants on smuggling charges, and the district attorney’s office filed paperwork for his extradition to the US last July.
The district attorney’s office noted that for many years, its antiquities trafficking unit has been investigating Kapoor and fellow conspirators for the illegal looting, export and sale of ancient art from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar and other nations. From 2011 to 2020, it adds, its office and HSI recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network valued at more than $143m.
Weiner, accused of involvement in importing the other three objects, was charged with conspiracy and possession of stolen property in 2016 in connection to allegedly using her New York gallery to purchase, smuggle, launder, and sell millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan and Thailand, the district attorney’s office notes.
Among the highlights cited by the district attorney’s office in today’s repatriation are a bronze meditating Buddha on a Naga, a statue of Shiva and a Buddhist sandstone sculpture of Prajnaparamita.
“The repatriation of these 27 stunning relics to the people of Cambodia restores an important link between the nation’s classical Angkor era and its modern customs and beliefs that, for far too long, was disrupted by the greed of stolen antiquities traffickers,” says Cyrus Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney.
In an emailed statement, Cambodia's Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the objects "are the souls of generations of Khmer ancestors, and represent Cambodia's awe-inspiring past, which have departed from their motherland over a number of years during a period of war."
"We are proud to present our joint efforts and cooperation between governments of our two countries to the Cambodian people and the world," she added, "for the benefit of all humanity, particularly Cambodia’s younger generation, so that they can learn the value of these treasures that are their cultural identity."