Cambodian officials are calling on the Metropolitan Museum of Art to explain how it came to acquire dozens of Khmer Empire antiquities that they believe were looted from the country during war, citing new evidence.
As The New York Times reported on Monday, Cambodian officials are citing a former temple looter who has apparently admitted to taking numerous Khmer shrines from the 1970's to the 1990's.
The man referred to only as "Lion" has escorted Cambodian officials to remote sites where he and his gang reportedly stole artifacts that were later sold to brokers in Thailand.
Cambodian Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona cited Lion's disclosure as crucial to identifying 45 items at the Met that the nation is focused on. According to Sackona, Lion recognized 33 of the 45 items as ones he personally stole. The items in question were acquired by the Met between 1977 and 2003.
“It surprises me and disappoints me that there are so many statues of ours in the Met," Sackona said. “We want to see the truth come out, we want to see all the facts come out about this. We want them all returned.”
According to Cambodian officials, Lion is now in his 60s and has expressed remorse for his actions, with one official quoting him as saying, “I want the gods to come home now."
Apart from the 45 artifacts of particular focus, the Times reported that Cambodian officials also have questions about 150s they say left their country during the period between 1970 and 2000 when Cambodia was taken over by war and genocide.
“Recently, in light of new information on some pieces in our collection, we reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s office — to volunteer that we are happy to cooperate with any inquiry,” the Met said in a statement, adding that it was following a “long and well-documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate.
The Times noted that officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office have previously aided Cambodia in recovering illicitly acquired artifacts. Officials with the attorney's office have accepted Lion's credibility as a looter, with a private owner of one of his looted artifacts voluntarily returning their purchase earlier this year.
Many previously colonized countries have begun to demand the repatriation of their looted or stolen cultural artifacts from western museums in recent years. France announced this year that it would be returning 26 pieces to the African country of Benin that were looted there 129 years ago.
In July, the Brooklyn Museum returned more than 1,000 artifacts to Costa Rica unprompted. As Reuters reported, American business tycoon Minor Cooper Keith had looted the artifacts some time around the early 20th century during the construction of a railroad. This was the second time that the museum had returned artifacts to Costa Rica, doing so first in 2011 with the return of over 900 ceramic items.