Two major British museums are opening their collections to Cambodian archaeologists for inspection following allegations that valuable artefacts were illegally brought to England.
The Cambodian government in May this year demanded the right to inspect the museums to recover antiquities that it says were stolen from the country’s temples during years of conflict under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The British Museum, a month later, granted permission for a specialist team to inspect and identify the potentially stolen objects, the Cambodian government said. The museum houses nearly 100 pieces from the southeast Asian country.
The Victoria & Albert Museum also joined the UK’s largest museum in granting permission to the Cambodian government to carry out inspections of its own collection. The museum has more than 50 pieces from the country, some of which are on display.
The delegation will first visit the Victoria & Albert Museum on Friday and the British Museum next week to examine the collections in person.
The Cambodians reportedly claimed that the British Museum could have dozens of artefacts that were illegally taken out of their country and later acquired by the museum.
They believe that the “souls of their ancestors are in the ancient statues”.
"The challenge for us is that we have been doing our research from long distance, just looking at what is publicly available on the museums' websites," Brad Gordon, the head of Cambodia's investigations team, told BBC.
"For example, we are not able to see the objects from different angles."
Sackona Phoeurng, the Cambodian minister of culture and fine arts, earlier said that authorities were “looking forward to an open and forthright dialogue” with the museums.
In a letter to her then UK counterpart Nadine Dorries, the Cambodian minister had written that several artefacts acquired by the museum were fraudulently “passed through the hands of [late art dealer] Douglas Latchford”.
Latchford made a fortune selling southeast Asian art and artefacts before he was charged with dealing in treasures looted from ancient sited in Cambodia during the period of unrest between the 1970s and 1990s.
In August, US officials returned 30 artefacts, including a 10th-century Khmer sculptural “masterpiece”, to Cambodia that were trafficked by Latchford.
The delegation has prepared a list of “priority” items that they are interested in discussing with each museum.
“I can’t wait to see what the museums are keeping,” Soklida Tek, a researcher with the delegation told BBC.
“I want to understand why the museums are hiding our ancestors, removed from their homes.”