The 10th century Khmer statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, have flanked the entrance to the Met’s South East Asian galleries for years and are among the museum’s most prized objects from the region.
They were acquired in fragments between 1987 and 1992 as donations primarily from Douglas Latchford, a British collector based in Bangkok who is at the center of a federal investigation of antiquities looted from the ancient temple complex of Koh Ker.
Cambodian officials announced last June that they would seek the return of the statues. At the time, Met officials said they had no information to indicate the statues were stolen.
On Friday, the Met would not release details on what information led it to decide to return the statues, but noted recent press reports and information provided by UNESCO officials, who have been investigating looting in Cambodia.
“All I can say is that sufficient evidence came to light,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer. “It was dispositive and more than satisfied the director.”
The returns, which were first reported in the New York Times on Friday, come amid mounting evidence that several American museums and auction houses possess objects looted from Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries.
The federal government is suing the auction house Sotheby’s on behalf of Cambodia for the return of a 10th century warrior statue that investigators claim was looted from the Koh Ker and illegally exported by Latchford.
Latchford allegedly knew the statue was looted and fraudulently obtained export licenses with the British auction house Spink and Son, which later sold the statue to a Belgian collector. Latchford, who could not be reached Friday, has denied the allegations.
In 2010, Sotheby’s was set to auction the statue for the collector in New York, despite having been told by one expert that the statue was “certainly stolen,” the government’s complaint alleges.
The U.S. attorney’s office filed a civil lawsuit in April 2012 seeking the statue’s return to Cambodia. The case in ongoing.
In a statement, Sotheby’s said Friday, “The Met’s voluntary agreement does not shed any light on the key issues in our case …. When the court ultimately addresses these questions, we expect to prevail on each.”
Cambodian officials are also seeking the return of a matching statue, also tied to Latchford, that is on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Museum officials would not comment on whether the Met’s returns would affect that request, referring to a January statement in which they said they were cooperating with the appropriate authorities.
The Met notified Cambodian officials of their decision to return the two statues last week, and the date of the returns has yet to be decided. The museum has not contacted Latchford, Holzer said.
Experts who have followed the Sotheby’s case hailed the Met’s decision to voluntarily return the statues without litigation.
“A judge didn’t have to tell the Met to do the right thing,” said Tess Davis, an attorney who researches the illicit antiquities trade in Cambodia for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. “I hope that other museums — the Norton Simon among them — will follow the Met’s lead.”