PHNOM PENH: A set of ancient Angkorian gold jewellery was returned to Cambodia on Saturday (Dec 2) with an elaborate procession through the capital, decades after the precious pieces were looted from a famed jungle temple.
The 10-piece set, which includes a crown, earrings, armbands and a chest ornament, was stolen from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple during the kingdom’s civil war in the 1970s and was discovered in the online catalogue of a London art dealer last year.
The items are thought to date back to the Khmer Empire, a once-mighty dynasty that sprawled much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos between the ninth and 15th centuries.
After the pieces turned up in Britain, the Cambodian government lobbied for their return and with the help of specialists spent more than a year inspecting the items to make sure they were genuine.
Officials proudly welcomed the jewellery back to the country Saturday as the items were accompanied from the airport by hundreds of people and flanked by security guards.
“This is a successful mission of all Cambodians, including diplomats and people who love the arts and antiques. Everyone is happy,” Chuch Phoeun, secretary of state at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told AFP.
He said they are believed to have been pillaged during Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, though the exact date is not known.
London’s Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art dealership agreed in April to return the jewellery, which was proudly displayed behind protective glass Saturday and will now be appraised by experts in Cambodia.
The pieces will soon be designated as national heritage items, and will join scores of stolen artefacts that have made their way back to the country in recent years – many that had been on display in western museums or for sale by dealers.
The Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire built what were then some of the world’s mightiest cities and temples, including the famous Angkor Wat complex.
But decades of French colonialism and civil war saw vast swathes of Cambodia’s architectural and religious heritage looted and sold overseas.
Last year, an American museum sent a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of the Hindu god Rama, still missing its head, arms and feet, back to Cambodia after it was stolen in the 1970s.
In 2015, a statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman which had been looted from the same temple as the Rama torso was returned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Two other 10th-century Khmer-era statues known as the “Kneeling Attendants”, which had also been taken from the same temple complex, were returned from the United States in 2013.
On Saturday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Many said it was an honour to have the jewellery back on home soil.
“As a Cambodian, I am so proud to be part of this process to bring our ancestors heritage back home,” Many, a lawmaker who helped to secure its return, told AFP.