National Gallery of Australia returns sculptures to Cambodia

AAR-NGA-Bodhisattva-Avalokiteshvara-Padmapani-and-attendantsThe National Gallery of Australia has announced it will return three bronze sculptures from its Asian art collection to the Kingdom of Cambodia. The works of art being repatriated are Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, Bodhisattva Vajrapani and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani.

The repatriation is the result of a decade-long investigation and a highly valued collaboration between the National Gallery of Australia and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia, to determine the place of origin of the works of art that were removed from the national collection in 2021 due to the likelihood that they were illegally exported from their country of origin.

“The decision to repatriate these sculptures to the Kingdom of Cambodia is the culmination of years of research and due diligence that would not have been possible without the support of the Cambodian Government through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts; Bradley Gordon and the researchers at Edenbridge Asia; and Nawapan Kriangsak, daughter of the late Douglas Latchford, through her advisor Charles Webb of Hanuman Partners,” said National Gallery of Australia, Director, Nick Mitzevich.

“We are grateful for their support in identifying the place of origin of these culturally significant sculptures and are pleased we can now return them to their rightful home.”

At a handover ceremony at the National Gallery on Friday 28 July, Susan Templeman, the Australian Government’s Special Envoy for the Arts, said this repatriation is a demonstration of the maturity and respect that exists in Australia’s relationship with Cambodia.

“It is an opportunity to put right a historical wrong but also to strengthen our ties and deepen our understanding,” said Ms Templeman. “The National Gallery is to be commended for its diligence and commitment to the ethical management of its collections.”

“We are grateful for the cooperative spirit and graciousness with which the Government of Cambodia has worked with Australia on this issue.”

Following consultations with the Kingdom of Cambodia the sculptures are set to remain on display at the National Gallery for up to three years, while the Cambodian Government prepares a new home for them in the Kingdom’s capital.

“The National Gallery welcomes the decision made by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to share these important works with the Australian people,” said Dr Mitzevich.

“This loan agreement signals a new era of collaborative decision-making for the National Gallery, we are grateful for the opportunity and look forward to working with the Kingdom of Cambodia to return the works when they are ready.”

His Excellency Dr Chanborey Cheunboran, Ambassador, Royal Embassy of Cambodia, commended the decision by the Australian Government and the National Gallery to return the works.

“This is an historic occasion and an important step towards rectifying past injustices, reinforcing the value of cultural properties, and acknowledging the importance of preserving and protecting cultural heritage,” he said.

“The display and care of the sculptures at the National Gallery and their eventual repatriation highlight the power of international cooperation and more importantly signify a strong Cambodia-Australia cultural link, which is a cornerstone of our bilateral ties,” said Dr Cheunboran.

The repatriation is the second major decision under the Gallery’s Provenance Framework, the first being the deaccessioning of 17 works of art connected to art dealers Subhash Kapoor and William Wolff in 2021, demonstrating the National Gallery’s commitment to being a leader in the ethical management of collections.

The three 9th – 10th century bronze sculptures from the Cham Kingdom – Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, Bodhisattva Vajrapani and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani – were purchased for USD 1.5 million, in 2011 from the late art dealer Douglas Latchford.

From December 2016 onwards, the vendor has been convincingly implicated in the illegal trade of antiquities. Charges were laid against him related to alleged trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities in 2019. Latchford died in August 2020 and charges have since been laid posthumously against works of art sold by him.

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Image: Cham people, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani and attendants, 9th­­–10th century, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, Acquired 2011, Deaccessioned 2021, On loan from the Kingdom of Cambodia, 2023- 2026