The 11 artworks – the most valuable of which were a ninth century Preah Ko-style head of Shiva and a late 12th century Bayon-style male divinity – were handed over by businessman Morten Bosterud at an event presided over by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hom Namhong.
“I see myself not as a donor but as a returner of these art objects to their true owner,” Bosterud said. “I have had time to have a brief look around this museum and it made me realise that my decision was correct, and that my previous thoughts of being a caretaker of these objects was not correct.”
He added that he was certain the National Museum would take good care of the objects, display them to the public and use them for educational purposes.
Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeung Sakona thanked Bosterud for returning the artworks on behalf of the government and noted Cambodia’s rich heritage, which comprises more than 4,000 archaeological sites.
However, she pointed out, the country has suffered from wars and political instability, which had resulted in many of these locations being looted.
“Art objects with historical and cultural value have been illegally trafficked out of the country,” she said. “Through international cooperation and the goodwill of individuals, as well as institutions, ancient artefacts have begun to find their way home.”
Bosterud’s decision to return the artworks, she said, “reflects the support for combating illegal trafficking of antiquities, to which the Royal Government of Cambodia is paying very close attention”.
After the ceremony, Bosterud declined to comment on how the artworks came into his possession or how long he had owned them.
In April this year Cambodia began working with US authorities to repatriate $3 million worth of Cambodian antiquities reportedly smuggled into the US by New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who traded the artworks as part of an elaborate criminal sales and distribution network.
In the last three years, auction houses and museums in the United States have returned six looted statues to Cambodia, while Thailand returned 16 smuggled ancient treasures to the country.
[Image caption: Members of the media gather around 11 ancient Khmer artefacts yesterday during a handover ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai]