In brief

"Indiana Jane" Aids in Stolen Cambodian Statues' Return

Tess Davis Photo via the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation

Tess Davis.
Photo via the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.

According to The Diplomat, three 1,000-year-old Cambodian statues that were looted in the 1970s have finally been returned to the country from Sotheby's, Christie's, and the Norton Simon Museum. Instrumental in their return was Tess Davis, an art lawyer and affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow, who has recently been dubbed "Indiana Jane" for her efforts to end the looting and trafficking of antiquities, an allusion to the swashbuckling archaeologist played by Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones film franchise. The statues depict Hindu figures Duryodhana, Balarama, and Bhima, and were taken during the Cambodian Civil War.

The rampant thefts and the loss of cultural artifacts has been seen as a symptom of Cambodia's ongoing problems. Thus, seeing the statues returned has filled the nation with a sense of hope. Deputy prime minister Sok An expressed satisfaction during a repatriation ceremony: "Surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling, and traveling the world, these three have now regained their freedom and returned home."

One of the statues at a celebration for their return. Photo: Getty Images

One of the statues at a celebration for their return.
Photo: Getty Images.

Davis feels that the institutions in possession the statues were given a simple choice: to do the right thing, or not. “[Cambodia] has taken on the art market, an entire industry, and a powerful one at that," she told The Diplomat. “Collectors, dealers, museums, auction houses, they have deep pockets and top lawyers on their side. But Cambodia has something even more important: the truth and the law. And that's something no amount of money can buy."

Luckily, she was able to convince the museum and auction houses to see things her way. While the Norton Simon Museum insists their Bhima statue was acquired from a reputable dealer, they agreed to return it as a "gesture of friendship". Similarly, Christie's "gifted" the statue of Balarama to the nation after learning it may have been illegally stolen. The third statue, Duryodhana, was put up for sale by Sotheby's in 2011, but was pulled and surrendered after the US government filed a suit on behalf of Cambodia.