In 1994, two men nicknamed “the Falcon” and “the Lion” dug up three Buddhist sculptures in a field in Cambodia. Part of a looting operation, they sold the artifacts for the value of about $100 today, report Mazoe Ford and Anne Worthington of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
“I was around 35 years old when I was asked to dig,” the Falcon tells the ABC. “I was very poor. Our country was still at war.”
By 2011, the bronze statues had arrived at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), which bought them for $1.5 million, according to a statement from the NGA.
Now, after years of investigation into their provenance, the NGA is returning these rare items to Cambodia. “It is an opportunity to put right a historical wrong but also to strengthen our ties and deepen our understanding,” Susan Templeman, the Australian government’s special envoy for the arts, said in a recent handover ceremony, per the statement.
Experts say the statues date to around the ninth or tenth century. They were made by the Cham people, who once lived in parts of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia, and they were unearthed in an area that may have been part of the kingdom of Champa, as Bradley Gordon, an American lawyer working with Cambodia to help reclaim stolen cultural items, tells the Guardian’s Anne Davies.
The sculptures will remain on display at the NGA for up to three years as part of a loan agreement with the Cambodian government while it prepares a place for them. The NGA removed them from its collection in 2021 “due to the likelihood that they were illegally exported from their country of origin,” per the museum’s statement. The gallery purchased them from art dealer Douglas Latchford, who has since been “convincingly implicated in the illegal trade of antiquities.”
In 2019, Latchford was charged in relation to alleged trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian artifacts. Though he died in 2020, “charges have since been laid posthumously against works of art sold by him,” according to the NGA.
Looting has long been a problem in Cambodia, and a restitution team is attempting to track down approximately 4,000 statues stolen from the country, Gordon tells the ABC. “It’s an epic mess that we’re trying to clean up, it’s thousands of crime sites,” he says. “It’s not like ten statues just went out on a truck one day; we’re talking thousands, and we’re talking incredible temples just being ravaged by looting.”
At the handover ceremony—the first time the NGA has repatriated Cambodian artifacts—Kong Vireak, the undersecretary of state from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that the country had been traumatized by war, and the return “heals our nation,” according to the Guardian.
He added, “The return is a miracle and sets an example for the world.”