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California museum to return possibly looted statue to Cambodia

Ancient Cambodian Sta_Cham640.jpg

December 18, 2013: This file photo shows Cambodia's statue of a temple wrestler, titled Bhima, on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. The 10th-century sandstone statue will return to its place of origin in Cambodia following discussions and agreements with Cambodian state officials, the museum announced Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The Norton Simon Museum has agreed to return a 10th century statue that may have been looted from a Cambodian temple during that country's genocidal civil war in the 1970s.

"Temple Wrestler," a sandstone figure missing its hands and feet, has been displayed at the museum for nearly four decades. The 5-foot-high work depicts Bhima, a heroic figure in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in a fighting pose.

The sculpture is one of three being returned to Cambodia from the U.S.

Museum officials met with Cambodian officials earlier this year and are returning the statue "as a gesture of friendship, and in response to a unique and compelling request by top officials in Cambodia to help rebuild its `soul' as a nation," the Pasadena museum said Tuesday in a statement that was given to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

"The Norton Simon properly acquired the Bhima from a reputable art dealer in New York in 1976," the museum said. "However, the facts about the Bhima's provenance prior to the dealer's ownership are unclear because of the chaotic wartime conditions in Cambodia during the 1970s."

Cambodian officials believe it was looted from the 1,000-year-old Prasat Chen temple. Arrangements for the return will be announced at a later date.

As part of the return agreement, Cambodia will periodically loan other ancient statues to the museum, the Norton Simon said.

The decision marks the latest progress in efforts to bring back together nine figures that once formed a tableau in a tower of the temple. The scene captured a famous duel in Hindu mythology in which the warrior Duryodhana is struck down by his cousin Bhima at the end of a bloody war of succession while seven attendants look on.

Experts say that looters hacked the figures off their bases during the civil war. Some were apparently smuggled out of the country and eventually wound up in the hands of private collectors or in museums abroad, as did many statues from other temples that the Cambodian government now hopes to reclaim.

The figures of three onlookers to the duel are now in Cambodia, including two that were returned in June by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sotheby's auction house has agreed to return the footless figure of Duryodhana, valued at $2 million to $3 million, which was placed in Sotheby's catalog in 2011 after the widow of its former private Belgian owner gave it up for sale. Sotheby's later pulled it from its catalog.

Last year, the auction house agreed to surrender the statue, settling a lawsuit filed by the U.S. government on Cambodia's behalf.

Also, Christie's auction house will return a statue of the mythological figure Pandava. The auction house sold it to an anonymous collector in 2009 but bought it back earlier this year after officials determined that the sculpture had been looted, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

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