Norton Simon Museum to return contested ancient statue to Cambodia

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena announced that it will return an ancient statue acquired nearly 40 years ago to Cambodia, after talks with government officials seeking the repatriation of antiquities it believes were looted from ancient sites.

Museum officials said Tuesday that the 10th century sandstone statue known variously as the “Temple Wrestler” or “Bhima” will be returned to Cambodia as “a gift.”

Standing a little more than 5 feet in height, the statue has been on regular display since the museum purchased it in 1976.

The ancient “Bhima” is the twin of another contested statue that is also being returned to Cambodia. The “Duryodhana” was the subject of a complex legal fight that involved the auction house Sotheby’s, which had been planning to sell the work.

The planned sale was called off and an agreement was reached in December for the “Duryodhana” to be returned.


The twin statues are believed to have been taken from the temple complex at Koh Ker, an archaeological site in the northern part of the country. They are expected to form a centerpiece display in a special exhibition at the Cambodian National Museum.

Details of the transfer will be announced at a later date.

In agreeing to return the “Bhima,” the Norton Simon “has made the right decision,” said Tess Davis, a cultural heritage attorney and affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who has fought for the return of looted antiquities from Asia. “These statues were all plundered from Cambodia. They are war loot. They are stolen property.”

The Norton Simon’s “Bhima” is one of several statues from the Koh Ker site that Cambodia has sought to repatriate. On Tuesday, the auction house Christie’s said that it will return a 10th century statue depicting the mythological figure Pandava. The auction house sold the work in 2009 but recently bought it back.

Cambodia secured the return of two other Koh Ker works that were in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Norton Simon officials said that the museum “properly acquired the Bhima from a reputable art dealer in New York in 1976.” But the museum acknowledged that the facts about the statue’s provenance prior to the dealer’s ownership remain “unclear” due to wartime conditions in Cambodia during the 1970s.