PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Two 10th-century Cambodian stone statues displayed for nearly two decades at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were being returned to their homeland Tuesday in a high-profile case of allegedly looted artifacts.
The voluntary repatriation of the paired "Kneeling Attendants" statues by one of America's foremost cultural institutions is seen as setting a precedent for the restoration of artworks to their places of origin, from which they were often removed in hazy circumstances.
It comes as the Cambodian government is asking other museums to return similar objects. At the government's request, U.S. authorities have begun legal action against Sotheby's auction house to try to force the handover of a contested piece.
Cambodian officials and Buddhist monks have planned a welcome home ceremony for the life-size sandstone statues at the country's international airport.
Culture Ministry official Hab Tuoch said the statues are important examples of Cambodia's heritage and show the prosperity of the Angkor era, when Cambodian culture dominated the region.
They come from the Koh Ker temple in Siem Reap province, which is home to the famed Angkor Wat temples. Officials say they were stolen from the temple in the 1970s. The museum said the statues were given to the museum in pieces by different donors between 1987 and 1992.
The Metropolitan Museum announced in May it was returning the statues after researchers discovered new evidence indicating that they had been illegally exported under Cambodian law.
"The museum is committed to applying rigorous provenance standards not only to new acquisitions, but to the study of works long in its collections in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history," museum director Thomas P. Campbell said in a May 3 statement. "In returning the statues, the museum is acting to strengthen the good relationship it has long maintained with scholarly institutions and colleagues in Cambodia and to foster and celebrate continued cooperation and dialogue between us."
A 1993 Cambodian law prohibited the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission. Pieces provably taken after that date have stronger legal standing to compel their new owners abroad to return them. But there is also general agreement in the art world that pieces were acquired illegitimately if they were exported without clear and valid documentation after 1970 — the year of a United Nations cultural agreement targeting trafficking in illicit antiquities.
Largely due to the social and political disruptions of war, widespread looting of Cambodia's ancient temples took place in the 1970s through the 1990s, with many items smuggled through Thailand.
In April, the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan filed court papers seeking to compel Sotheby's to forfeit a 5-foot (1.5 meter)-tall sandstone statue so that it could be returned to Cambodia. U.S. authorities acted at the request of Cambodia.
The statue came from the same Koh Ker temple as the Kneeling Attendants. It was consigned by a private collector to Sotheby's in 2010, according to court papers. In February, Sotheby's identified the seller as a European collector who purchased the work from a London dealer in 1975.
The sculpture of a mythical warrior in an elaborate headdress has been estimated by Sotheby's to be worth $2 million to $3 million at auction. The statue is of "extraordinary value" to the Cambodian people and "a triumph of creativity and innovation," papers filed by the U.S. attorney's office said.
Sotheby's has said it would defend against the action and disputed federal prosecutors' allegation that the sculpture was illegally imported into the U.S.
The statue was to be auctioned on March 24, 2011, but Sotheby's voluntarily withdrew it from auction a day before the sale after a Cambodian official sent a letter asking it to do so.