LOWELL — The questionable acquisition of antiquities from countries and civilizations by Western museums has a long and ignoble history that is typically associated with previous eras or turn-of-the-century institutions.
But as recently as the early 1970s through the 1990s, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the largest and most prestigious art museums in the world, was buying artifacts that the Cambodian government says were smuggled out of the country illegally.
The Cambodian government started focusing on looted art in the past two years, and alleges that at least 13 items in the Met’s Southeast Asian Art Gallery 249 are stolen artifacts, a story that was reported in a New York Times article published in August. The museum says it launched an internal investigation, but to date has not shared its findings related to Cambodia’s claims.
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan sits on the Congressional Cambodia Caucus, which sent a letter to President and Chief Executive Officer Daniel Weiss on Nov. 18, holding the Met to a public accounting of their internal investigation into the allegations of looted artifacts in the collection.
“Our request is pretty straightforward,” Trahan said. “These are simple common-sense questions, and it’s my hope we get their response sooner than later.”
The letter requests that the Met provide the caucus an update on its ongoing internal investigation, a deadline for a determination about the pieces in question, whether the Met will commit to working with the Department of Justice to determine where the priceless artifacts belong and if the Met determines the treasures were originally looted, to returning them to the people of Cambodia.
“I’m glad that they’ve launched an internal investigation,” Trahan said. “But we firmly believe that the results of that investigation need to be made public. If the artifacts are found to have been stolen, they need to be returned to Cambodia.”
One of the questionable artifacts includes what Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau calls Cambodia’s version of the “Mona Lisa.”
“One of my favorite artifacts is called the Standing Female Diety, which is like an angel,” Chau said, wistfully. “She is so beautiful, and really embodies the spirit, the culture and soul of our history, which was nearly annihilated by the Khmer Rouge.”
Chau is the city and the country’s first Cambodian American mayor in the second largest Cambodian American enclave in the United States. He came to this country as a 9-year-old in 1981, with his mother and six siblings. They fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, whose soldiers executed his father, a captain in the Cambodian army.
“Some of these items at the Met came from temples in the Angkor Wat,” Chau said. “They were never meant to be for sale. Anything from the Angkor Wat sites are clearly not legitimate no matter the nature of the transactions. These artifacts have spiritual and cultural significance.”
The Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by Khmer King Suryavarman II, during the Khmer Empire for the Khmer people, and “for their ancestors before us, and also for the future generations,” Chau said. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
State Rep. Vanna Howard was disturbed to learn about the artifacts held by the Met, and questioned why its internal investigation was taking so long.
Like Chau, Howard fled the Khmer Rouge genocide as a child, an experience she still struggles to talk about. She became the first Cambodian American woman elected to the state Legislature.
“I obviously recognize the deep cultural significance of these artifacts, and I applaud Cambodia’s efforts to recover these items,” Howard said. “I certainly hope the Met will return them to the people of Cambodia, regardless of how these artifacts were acquired. They represent the sum total of our cultural history after the destruction by the Khmer Rouge. Recovery of these precious items can only help to heal my country’s soul.”
Trahan, who was recently re-elected to her third term in the 3rd Congressional District, is not a woman to take “no” for an answer, and she expects the Met to answer the caucus’s questions on an issue that resonates so powerfully for constituents in her district.
“I do expect a timely response to our request,” Trahan said. “And a promise from Met leaders that they’ll meet the commitments that are laid out in the letter. Overall, I’d like to see the Met, other museums, art collectors and auctions houses pay closer attention to the provenances — the record of ownership or origin of the piece of art — for the art and artifacts that they own or acquire. If the artifacts were stolen, they belong to the Cambodian people.”
Chau pauses when reflecting on his Cambodian and his American history, and how the Met’s artifacts lay at the heart of the Cambodian diaspora.
“An artifact like Standing Female Deity really holds a lot of history for us,” Chau said. “And for me to see her stand not with her family of spirits at home at the Angkor Wat, I feel sad for her, and I feel sad for our people. The artifacts personally touch me, as they would touch anyone from the Cambodian diaspora. We miss our homeland and our history, but the Cambodian people in our country, because of the war have been disconnected from their history, as well.”
Weiss and the communications department at the Met did not respond to requests for comment.