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Dispute over loans for Khmer art exhibition at Paris's Grand Palais has reached a compromise

Government ministers quarrel over paperwork, but also over the care and safety of 'sacred and symbolic' treasures

Ministers in the Cambodian government have been in heated dispute since late last year over a major exhibition of Khmer art scheduled for Paris’s Grand Palais from 4 February 1997, and Washington’s National Gallery of Art from 7 July 1997. Just as organisers were threatening to call the whole thing off, a compromise was reached on 31 May.

The controversy surrounded the removal of six revered artefacts from Phnom Penh’s National Museum, and one from the Royal Palace, which were to be restored and exhibited.

A total of ninety-six objects from the National Museum were promised to the galleries by Vann Molyvann, Minister of State for Culture and Fine Arts. An agreement was drawn up on 2 August 1995 between the Royal Government and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the Musée Guimet, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

It stated that the exhibition would include 150 objects in all, the remainder drawn from the Musée Guimet, which has just closed for major refurbishment and reorganisation, and various private collections. Transport, insurance and restoration work costing approximately $1.5 million was to be carried out and funded by the French and American institutions.

But there was disagreement from Dr Michel Tranet, under-Secretary of State at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and Nouth Narang, Minister of Culture. They claimed that the agreement was signed without their approval, and they vigorously opposed the transport of the seven major pieces which they described as not only fragile but sacred and symbolic.

The objects included a twelfth-century seated figure and a twelfth-century bust of Jayavarman VII, a tenth-century Umamahesvara from Banteay Srei, a tenth-century sculpture of Shiva and Uma, an eleventh-century Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara, a seventh-century Durga, wife of Shiva and, from the Royal Palace, a seventh-century solid-silver bull, Nandin.

“These pieces are our cultural heritage”, declared Dr Tranet. “They constitute our collective memory, the soul of our people. They have a moral, historic and cultural value and are irreplaceable. They should not be taken abroad”.

But Vann Molyvann maintained that he had the agreement of both prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranarridh and Hun Sen, when the original accords were signed, together with the curator of the museum, Pich Keo, and special adviser Ang Chouléan, from the Ministry of Culture.

“The Protocol d’Accord (draft treaty) was completely clear”, he insisted. “We drew up a list. French conservators are already here in Phnom Penh repairing certain objects, and the USA has sent bronze experts who are working in the museum, together with photographers and about ten specialists who are helping on the operation”.

Vann said that the agreement was drawn up to coincide with Cambodia fulfilling the conditions necessary for Angkor to become a World Heritage Site in 1995 when, to meet its obligations, it formed an organisation called Apsara to protect the site.

In a climate of mistrust inherited from the war years, officials were thrown into further confusion when a petition from a mysterious organisation in Paris, calling itself the Committee for the Defence of Khmer Culture, was sent to King Sihanouk, via his son Prince Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s representative to UNESCO in Paris. It opposed the exhibition and claimed that the pieces were being exported for sale. It is unclear whether the organisation is Khmer Rouge, but Tranet described it as communist.

At this point, King Sihanouk interceded. He demanded a statement after Tranet and Narang had taken their objections to the prime ministers. Tranet claimed that Ranarridh was on their side and supported their reluctance to strip the museum bare. With letters and statements going back and forth between ministers, prime ministers and the King, the organisers threatened to abandon the project.

A compromise was eventually reached on 31 May in Paris between the Royal Government, the National Gallery of Art and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, whereby the Seated Figure of Jayavarman VII and the Nandin from the Royal Palace are to be excluded from the exhibition.

Jean-François Jarrige, General Curator of the Musée Guimet, responded with equanimity to the final decision, saying that the reasons for withdrawing the two sculptures were completely understandable.

“It was laid down in the 1995 agreement that the list could be modified according to the urgency for conservation”, he said. “The pieces which will come from Phnom Penh together with the forty-seven works from the Guimet will enable us to present the most impressive exhibition of Khmer art ever organised. That is the situation as it stands, and there is therefore no need to be pessimistic for the moment”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Judgement of Solomon for Khmer sculptures'