Watch CBS News

Inside the effort to return stolen cultural artifacts to Cambodia

It was Hollywood that turned the temple complex around Angkor Wat into an ultra-famous location, but the Cambodian site is so much more than a movie set. For nine hundred years, it has been a wonder of history, religion and art. 

It's also the site of an epic theft. Thousands of people visit the temple every day, but look closely at some of the lesser-known parts of the complex, and you'll notice vital statues of Hindu gods and Buddhas are missing.

In the decades of lawlessness following Cambodia's civil war, which raged from 1967 to 1975 and left hundreds of thousands of people dead, looters raided these sites and made off with the priceless artifacts. Many have ended up in private collections and museums. 

American lawyer Brad Gordon said he is on a mission to track down these irreplacable items. 

"Many of these statues have spiritual qualities, and the Cambodians regard them as their ancestors," Gordon said."They believe that they're living." 

Angkor Wat. Dmitry Rukhlenko/iStock

In one case, a man named Toek Tik, code-named Lion, revealed to Gordon and a team of archaeologists that he had stolen a statue from a temple. Lion died in 2021, but first, he led Gordon and the archaeology team to the temple he'd robbed in 1997. There, Gordon and his team found a pedestal and the fragment of a foot, which led the experts to confirm that Lion had stolen the statue "Standing Female Deity." 

Now, that statue lives in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

"We have his confirmation, and then we have a French archaeologist who uses 3D imaging. And he's been able to match the body at the Met to the foot that's here," Gordon said. The museum returned two Cambodian sculptures, known as the Kneeling Attendants, in 2013, but Gordon said they're not budging on the matter of "Standing Female Deity." 

"The Met has been very difficult," Gordon said. The museum did not respond to a request for comment from CBS News. 

Gordon said that he isn't giving up on bringing the statue home.

"At the moment we have been working with the U.S. Government - providing them information on the collection," Gordon explained. "And the U.S. Government has their own investigation going on.  If it doesn't work out to our satisfaction, we are confident we can bring civil action."

Other museums and collectors have cooperated, Gordon said, and so the looted pieces have been trickling back to Cambodia. As recently as March, a trove of pieces were returned by a collector in the United Kingdom who'd inherited the pieces and decided giving them back was the only ethical choice. 

"Some museums are actually contacting us now and saying, 'Hey, we don't want to have stolen objects. Would you review our collection... If you want any of them back, please just tell us,'" Gordon said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.