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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 27, 2002

Academy returns stolen art pieces

By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Honolulu Academy of Arts yesterday returned two ancient sculptures to Cambodia after academy officials discovered the donated treasures were stolen from the country during unrest in the 1970s.

Academy director George R. Ellis and a delegation of trustees returned a 15-inch stone head of the Hindu god Shiva and a 19-inch demon head of Asura in a formal ceremony yesterday in Cambodia.

The academy learned that the two sculptures were stolen after reading an article in a 1996 publication on looting in Cambodia. Many Cambodian artifacts were stolen during the country's civil war and its aftermath and sold to antique shops.

"Once we found out they were stolen, we started to move towards repatriation," said Charlie Aldinger, director of public relations for the Honolulu Academy of Arts. "They're priceless. You can't replace them. They're fairly ancient pieces. It's not like you can go out and buy them again."

Aldinger said the Cambodian artifacts had been purchased separately from reputable sources and were donated more than five years ago by collectors John Young of Honolulu and Sally and Christian H. Aall of Diamond Head.

The artifacts were displayed at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' John Young Gallery of Southeast Asian Art in January and February, Aldinger said.

The stone head of Shiva was carved in the ninth century. It was originally offered through Sotheby's London and later bought from Doris Weiner in New York by the Aalls in 1990 and donated to the academy.

Sally Aall, who has donated about 100 pieces to the academy, said she paid more than $50,000 for the artifact.

"We're very happy that it's back (in Cambodia)," she said yesterday. "They have beautiful things there."

In describing the sculpture that was returned, she said it was as attractive from the back as from the front.

"It should always be displayed on a turntable because it's an incredible piece with this hat on it," she said.

Aall said she was furious to learn the piece was stolen, but said Weiner has since offered a replacement Indian piece.

Young donated the Asura artifact to the academy shortly before his death several years ago, said his daughter, Deborah Young.

"He was quite a collector," she said. "His idea was to collect something — of course not knowing the origin like this — to enjoy it and to live with it. It is such a high honor to repatriate the piece."

Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, the minister of culture and a daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk, has called the return a "noble gesture" and expressed her "profound gratitude" to academy members.

The artifacts will eventually be put on display in the National Museum of Phnom Penh, Aldinger said.

In 2000, the academy repatriated a collection of pottery shards gathered during academy-sponsored field work in Okinawa. The shards were returned to a delegation of museum officials from the Okinawan Prefectural Museum.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.