Switzerland Hand Back Looted Buddha Statue

Swiss authorities seized the 41.5cm long and 49cm high statue in the city of Basel 10 years ago. Photo: Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN Office at Geneva

PHNOM PENH – Switzerland has handed back a Buddha statue looted from Cambodia.​​ 

In Dara, the Cambodian Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva received the statue from a Swiss official, the Cambodian mission announced on Feb. 6.

Swiss authorities seized the 41.5cm long and 49cm high statue in the city of Basel 10 years ago. 

Swiss experts believe it dates from the pre-Angkor or early Angkor periods and is presumably over 1,000 years old.

However, an initial assessment of Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said that the metal statue of Buddha Defeating the Devil dated to the 18th or 19th centuries based on the form and style. 

Specialists have determined that the sculpture is a genuine historical Khmer artwork with religious and artistic significance, requiring preservation as part of the country’s cultural legacy, the ministry said. 

Under Swiss law, confiscated cultural property must be returned to its country of origin. 

In Dara expressed appreciation to the Swiss government, particularly the federal office of Culture and the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Basel, and other stakeholders for the assistance and cooperation, for both legal and technical aspects, in preventing the smuggling of a cultural artifact and facilitating its return.

“Cambodia is currently researching to gather evidence of significant cultural properties illegally taken from our nation by collaborating with the international community and relevant stakeholders for the effective claim process and follow-up,” he said.

He said that Cambodia considers the repatriation of its artifacts as a noble and respectful gesture, reflecting ethical conduct and consideration in contributing to the nation’s cultural values. 

“It further serves as a noble effort to reconcile and heal the emotional wounds of the Cambodian people who have endured a prolonged civil war,” he said.

Dara called on all museums, institutions and curators of Khmer antiquities to continue to voluntarily return culturally significant national items to Cambodia.

Fabienne Baraga, head of the Swiss Specialised Body of International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Federal Office of Culture, said the Swiss government is committed to the prevention of illicit trafficking and illegal trading of cultural properties and the preservation of the cultural heritage of mankind. 

“This restitution is not just the return of a valuable object to its place of origin, it also symbolizes the spirit of solidarity and respect between our two states,” she said.

Cambodia has gone through many wars over the past decades, leaving the chance for looters to illegally trade many artefacts and sculptures across the world.​ Between 2017 and 2021, Cambodia received 258 Khmer artifacts from abroad.

Australia and the US are among the countries that hosted many Khmer artefacts and have actively handed over such priceless items to Cambodia over the years.  

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