Three 1,000-year-old statues depicting Hindu mythology were welcomed home to Cambodia on Tuesday after being looted from a temple during the country's civil war and put in Western art collections.
The pieces were handed over at a ceremony attended by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and U.S. diplomat Jeff Daigle after being returned by the U.S. branches of auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's, and the Norton Simon Museum in California.
Cambodian officials say the statues were looted in the 1970s by being hacked off their bases in the Koh Ker temple complex in Siem Reap province, also home to the Angkor Wat temples.
A 1993 Cambodian law prohibits the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission. Pieces 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 U.N. cultural agreement targeting trafficking in antiquities.
The three statues are representations of the mythological Hindu figures Duryodhana, Balarama and Bhima.
Their return marks a step forward in efforts to bring back together nine figures that once formed a tableau in a tower of the temple. The scene captured a famous duel in Hindu mythology in which the warrior Duryodhana is struck down by his cousin Bhima at the end of a bloody war of succession while seven attendants look on.
Two statues from the same temple that had been displayed for nearly two decades at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were returned to Cambodia last November. The voluntary return of the pair of "Kneeling Attendants" statues by one of America's foremost cultural institutions was seen as setting a precedent for the restoration of artworks to their places of origin, from which they were often removed in hazy circumstances.
Experts say that looters hacked the Koh Ker figures off their bases during the civil war. Some were apparently smuggled out of the country and eventually landed with private collectors or in museums, as did statues from other temples that the Cambodian government hopes to reclaim.
The Cambodian government is asking other museums to return similar objects. Sok An said the handover ceremony was "to welcome these three heroes back where they belong."
"In a long 40-year journey, surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and travelling the world, these three have now regained their freedom and returned home," he said.
The Norton Simon Museum has displayed for nearly four decades its 5-foot-high sandstone figure of Bhima, which is missing its hands and feet. It said last month it had acquired the statue from a reputable dealer in 1976, but that the chaos of war in Cambodia made it unclear how the dealer had acquired it.
The Pasadena, California, museum announced in a statement that it was returning the statue "as a gesture of friendship, and in response to a unique and compelling request by top officials in Cambodia to help rebuild its 'soul' as a nation."
Sotheby's agreed to return the footless figure of Duryodhana, valued at $2 million to $3 million, which was placed in Sotheby's catalog in 2011 after the widow of its former Belgian owner gave it up for sale. Sotheby's later pulled it from its catalog. The auction house agreed to surrender the statue, settling a lawsuit filed by the U.S. government on Cambodia's behalf.
Jeff Daigle, deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, said over the past two decades 97 Cambodian artifacts have been repatriated from the United States.
"While celebrate a happy ending for the statues we see today, we must not forget that the commercial trade in illicitly acquire art still strives. It is incumbent upon each of us to be part of the solution in the combatting this shameful crime," he said.