The return to Cambodia of two tenth-century Khmer sandstone sculptures, which had been displayed for nearly 20 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, made headline news around the world this summer. The restitution was greeted enthusiastically by Cambodia’s Council of Ministers when the sculptures, looted from the ancient city of Koh Ker in the 1970s, arrived in Phnom Penh in June. The restitution is now shining a spotlight on the degree of damage to Koh Ker and raises questions about a number of masterpiece sculptures in public and private collections.
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The so-called “Kneeling Attendants” are now known to have come from Prasat Chen, the temple complex at the heart of Chok Gargyar (today called Koh Ker), which, for a short period in the tenth century, eclipsed even Angkor in its magnificence. Koh Ker is in a remote part of northern Cambodia; it was covered by jungle for centuries and only rediscovered in the late 19th century. Although there was previous damage, many experts say that looting began in earnest during the political upheaval and civil war of the 1960s and 1970s, and amid the chaos of the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, although others say that the extensive damage is even more recent.