After the horrors, Cambodia looks to reclaim its heritage
As the tumultuous past recedes, government and cultural bodies have become active in trying to retrieve Khmer statues and artefacts, which may have been looted during political upheavals in the early 1970s and routed through Bangkok
For decades, thousands of Khmer antiquities have been sold on the international art market and through major auction houses in London, New York and elsewhere, bought up by leading museums and wealthy collectors. A large portion of these artefacts came with little or no ownership history, meaning they could well have been looted from temple complexes by thieves during the country's years of political turmoil, with Cambodia powerless to stem the trade or repatriate any of the items.
FAR APART: The pedestal and feet belonging to a 1,000-year-old statue of a mythic warrior from the Khmer kingdom of Koh Ker, Cambodia. Below, a Sotheby’s catalogue, featuring the 10th-century statue estimated to be worth US$2-$3 million (61.3-92 million baht).
This year, however, things have begun to change. Currently under litigation in New York is a 10th-century statue that Sotheby's auction house had been preparing to put up for sale with a catalogue estimate of US$2-3 million (60-90 million baht). In March, the Cambodian and US governments filed court papers to seize the statue, which they say was stolen from a site in Koh Ker, Cambodia, and exported illegally. Sotheby's has countered that the statue could have been taken at any point during its 1,000 year history and moved for the case to be dismissed.
Cambodia recently also requested the return of pieces from the same era that are housed at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Norton Simon Museum in California, all thought to have come from the Prasat Chen temple complex in Koh Ker.
Bangkok was long one of the biggest hubs in the illicit trade of Khmer antiquities, and some experts think that may still be the case today. This month, five ancient Khmer statues were seized in Aranyaprathet, en route to a dealer in Bangkok, the driver told police who seized the cargo. While it is possible these may turn out to be fakes, the seizure indicates a continued demand for Khmer art. Bangkok's River City shopping centre has dozens of statues for sale labelled as 8th-13th century Khmer antiquities, which staff are more than willing to help buyers export abroad.
Art collectors, legal experts and officials are divided on the issue, and the Sotheby's case will have a huge bearing on whether other attempts by Cambodia to reclaim its lost heritage are successful, as well as ramifications for the world antiquities trade. A Spectrum investigation takes a look at where things stand.
GOING, GOING ... HANG ON A MINUTE
The Duryodhana sandstone statue that Sotheby's put on the cover of its catalogue stands at 1.5m high and weighs about 115kg. The high-profile sale was announced internationally in an attempt to raise even higher bids than the catalogue estimate. At the last minute, in March last year, Cambodian officials called for a halt to the sale, citing evidence that it was plundered illegally from Koh Ker. In 2007, the feet and pedestal of the statue had been discovered at the Prasat Chen complex there.
Similar items from the 10th-century Koh Ker era, Sotheby's pointed out, have been openly displayed for decades at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Norton Simon museum in southern California, without any ownership disputes.
Perhaps as a consequence, Cambodia has since requested that two kneeling attendants at the Met, donated to the museum in four pieces from 1987 to '92, be repatriated. This month, they also asked for the return of the Norton Simon statue, bought in 1976 from William Wolff, a New York trader. The piece at the Norton Simon Museum is a companion to the Sotheby's statue; its feet and base were also discovered at Koh Ker and the two warriors were thought to stand opposite each other, as guardians of the western entrance to Prasat Chen.
In a report published last year in the journal Crime, Law and Social Change called ''Supply and demand: Exposing the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities through a study of Sotheby's auction house'', Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, suggests that much of the Khmer material put up for sale by Sotheby's has illegal origins.
Between 1988 and 2010, the report states, 377 Khmer antiquities were put up for auction. Of these, 71% had no published ownership history and of the rest, most had weak provenance. None had documentation establishing the artefacts had entered the market legally, that is with origins in archaeological excavations, colonial collections or Cambodian institutions.
1,000-YEAR HISTORY, BEGINNING IN 1975
Koh Ker was the Khmer capital from 928 to 944AD, when King Jayavarman IV moved it from Angkor, 100km to the southwest. Angkor at the time was the biggest city in the world and would become even bigger, but in its heyday rival Koh Ker built a huge complex of monuments, sanctuaries and towers. There were also dozens of temples, including Prasat Chen, dedicated to Vishnu, which the Duryodhana statues guarded. The statues are some 200 years older than the most prized Angkor-era artefacts, and their sheared feet and pedestals, discovered in 2007 and digitally matched with the statues, remain at the entrance to the western pavilion. Archaeologists have said they believe the attendants now at the Met kneeled only a few metres away from them, and were possibly taken at the same time.
THE PENH IS MIGHTY: The tastefully designed National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Court papers show that the Sotheby's statue was bought in 1975 from Spink & Son, a British auction house, by a Belgian prince, believed to be the husband of Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, listed as the seller. The Belgian prince has since died. The Norton Simon statue was bought from Wolff in New York in 1976, and the statues at the Met were donated by patrons in association with Spink.
Douglas Latchford, Bangkok-based co-author of Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art, told Spectrum that Spink & Son had asked him for a financial contribution to help clear the way for the kneeling attendants to be donated to the Met. One of the heads and both torsos were registered as having been donated by Mr Latchford.
On the attendants and the Sotheby's sale, Michael Spink wrote by email, ''Anthony Gardner, as director of the Spink Southeast Asian Department, suggested that a number of people including Mr Latchford make a donation to enable the pieces to be donated to the Metropolitan Museum in honour of Martin Lerner [the Met's Southeast Asian curator from 1972 to 2004].''
Mr Spink, who left the company 15 years ago, said Gardner had since died. ''I do not have any records of any matter relating to Spink business,'' he added.
Two sources told us that the person who bought the statue from Spink in 1975 may not have been the Belgian prince but another member of the Belgian aristocracy. Ms Ruspoli was revealed as the seller of the Duryodhana statue only after court pressure on Sotheby's.
In 1983, the US became a signatory to the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property.
In 1993, a Cambodian law nationalised cultural heritage, and Unesco and the International Council of Museums issued ''Looting in Angkor: One Hundred Missing Objects'', a report identifying some of the country's stolen property. So far, 10 of the 100 items have been located and returned, including two sandstone heads and a statuette from Sotheby's.
In 2000, US-Cambodian restrictions on the import of archaeological material came into place, after which auction-house sales of Khmer antiquities became much rarer. There are also bilateral cultural agreements in place between Cambodia and the US, Australia and Thailand, and a ''Cambodian Antiquities Red List'' brochure for Interpol and customs officials around the world helping to stem the trade.
For objects taken before 2000, it may be possible to invoke a recently rediscovered 1900 French colonial patrimony law, although this law isn't yet part of Unesco's database of national patrimony laws.
Beyond any legal claim are ethical issues. The Association of Art Museum Directors's guidelines state that member museums shouldn't collect any undocumented art pieces that were removed after November 1970, regardless of statutes of limitations, and many museums such as the Met have tightened controls regarding paperwork for new acquisitions.
Sotheby's has said that the Duryodhana statue could have been taken from the site at any time in the past 1,000 years and there is no proof it was taken illegally. The auction house has petitioned for the case to be dismissed, and Judge George B Daniels, expected to rule on the petition in a month or two, said, ''This isn't the strongest case of knowledge of stolen property and ownership by clear and unambiguous language.''
Herbert Larson Jr, a professor at Tulane Law School in New Orleans and legal expert familiar with the case and with antiquities law, explained some of the specifics.
''The law being relied upon by the government is the law of civil forfeiture; more specifically, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 981, and 983,'' he wrote by email. ''Generally speaking, Section 981 gives the government the right to forfeit property constituting, or derived from proceeds traceable to a criminal offence.
''Once property is forfeited under this statute, the government then has the right, and duty, to return the property to its rightful owner. The legal standard for a civil forfeiture action is proof by a preponderance of the evidence _ not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.''
To succeed in the case, therefore, the government would need to show that Cambodia owned the statue and that it was taken from the country in violation of Cambodian law, or in a manner that would violate the laws of the US if the removal had taken place there.
For Sotheby's to prevail in the case, it would have to show that the owner did not know the removal from Cambodia was illegal. If the owner turned a ''blind eye'', or was wilfully blind, that would be tantamount to knowing the move was illegal.
''In my opinion,'' Mr Larson said, ''the law of Cambodia is quite clear: The statue is and always has been the property of Cambodia, and its removal violated Cambodian law. As a matter of international law, the United States should respect, and assist in the enforcement of that law.''
THE BANGKOK CONNECTION
A likely scenario, said one source, was that Koh Ker had been looted in the early 1970s after access roads had been built and the country was in political turmoil, at the direction of persons who targeted certain items and were fully aware of their value on the art market.
Some of the experts we contacted thought that Bangkok was and perhaps still is a major hub for the trade of Khmer antiquities, and that the four Koh Ker pieces in the US that Cambodia is seeking to reclaim possibly crossed the border into Northeast Thailand and were shipped abroad from Bangkok. Koh Ker is only around 100km from Ubon Ratchathani and Si Sa Ket provinces.
GENERATIONAL APPEAL: Young children at play on the grounds of a temple in Koh Ker, once part of a Khmer capital rivalling Angkor.
Without any prior records from traders such as Spink & Son in London and the deceased William Wolff in New York, with whom paperwork history of the two warriors and two attendants begins in the 1970s, establishing when and how they left Cambodia will be difficult.
Mr Latchford said that Bangkok's Nakhon Kasem, the former Thieves' Market, was quite vibrant in the trade of Khmer antiquities in the 1950s and '60s. Since the Khmer empire once covered large areas of what is now Thailand, though, it would have been impossible to prove that these items hadn't originated in modern Thailand.
''Spink used to come to Thailand,'' Mr Latchford said. ''Spink had two offices. One in London and one in Zurich. Both directors would come out here from the '50s, to Siem Reap and to Bangkok. So presumably Spink bought one [statue] and presumably the other was bought by [New York trader] Willie Wolff, who used to come a few times a year, here or in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or Hong Kong or Singapore.
''At Nakhon Kasem in the '50s and '60s there were about four or five dealers who dealt in high-end quality goods, and I don't know if any of them still exist. Spink and Wolff could have bought from there.''
Ms Davis, the director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, said that Thailand hasn't done enough to stem the trade. ''Plundered Khmer antiquities are sometimes trafficked by sea to Singapore, but most often are smuggled overland to Bangkok, the centre of Southeast Asia's illicit art trade,'' she said. ''In recent years, dealers openly sold looted Cambodian treasures, and even arranged the theft on demand of specific pieces from the country. Still today, they easily export pillaged objects by disguising them as reproductions.
''It is not a coincidence that Singapore and Thailand are two of only a dwindling number of countries that are still not parties to the 1970 Unesco convention. Their absence threatens to undermine the treaty's effectiveness in the region. It also endangers Thailand's own rich cultural heritage, which itself is falling victim to looters in search of treasures to sell on the international art market.''
When Spectrum visited River City last month and spoke to a number of salespersons under the guise of buying and exporting to Europe sculptures labelled as 9th-13th century Khmer, including Buddha images, they all indicated that this would be no problem. The shipping company had an arrangement with the Fine Arts Department to provide the necessary paperwork, one saleswoman said. Another said that an object would be classed as a reproduction to evade problems. Any paperwork required, a third said, could easily be arranged.
An official at the Fine Arts Department, who asked not to be identified, said that there is an extant law regarding the export of antiquities _ the Archaeological Sites, Archaeological Objects and Artefacts Act of 1961, revised in 1992, which applies to objects of any era. The authorised agency is the Section of the Control of Artefacts Export under the Fine Arts Department. Anyone wishing to export art objects or reproductions must contact the section and have each item verified by a team of experts who have final say.
Essentially, the official said, this precludes the export of ancient artefacts except for exhibition purposes.
If looted Khmer antiquities were exported from Thailand after 1961, this would have been in contravention of Thai law.
As for imports, the official said, they are regulated by the Commerce Ministry, which defers to the Fine Arts Department regarding antiquities.
The Fine Arts Department does have teams which ''regularly'' inspect places such as River City to verify that there is no illegal trade in looted antiquities, the official added.
Asked if there were genuine antiquities sold at River City, Mr Latchford said that although he visits the shopping centre regularly, he hasn't seen any.
''Most of what you see is fake,'' he said. ''I haven't seen anything worth buying for years.''
Even the shipment of statues seized in Aranyaprathet on Oct 4, he said, weren't of the Koh Ker and earlier styles as reported in the press, and even if genuine were nowhere near 1,000-2,000 years old as was reported.
''Are antiquities still lost from Cambodia? I haven't seen it here.''
A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
There are some compelling reasons for preserving such pieces in museums of international repute, where more visitors can learn from and appreciate them.
If the Sotheby's sale is blocked, some traders have warned, it will simply drive the antiquities trade underground and stolen objects will become even harder to recover.
Determining where and when century a sculpture originated doesn't mean that the location was its final resting point before being taken out of Cambodia, Mr Latchford pointed out. Some large 10th-century Koh Ker sculptures at the Musee Guimet in Paris, for example, were listed as being discovered in Battambang in 1927, in the northwest of the country.
Of the Sotheby's statue, he said, ''People say it left in 1970 after a road was built in 1965, but there's no evidence of that.
''Is the US government interfering too much? The French government isn't interfering.''
There are conservation depots in Siem Reap, he pointed out, where hundreds of pieces lie scattered on the ground.
In that respect, for presenting and preserving the art, foreign institutions might not necessarily be bad choices.
By comparison, the art of Vietnam is not really known or appreciated internationally, he said, due to a paucity of exhibits abroad.
''There's no reason why they shouldn't spread them around and let other people in the world see them.''
The collector Norton Simon, in an interview with the New York Times in 1973 was forthright regarding the origins of a bronze Shiva he had recently paid $1 million for, which the Indian government claimed had been ripped out of a temple complex.
''Hell, yes, it was smuggled,'' he said. ''I spent between $15 and $16 million over the last two years on Asian Art and most of it was smuggled. I don't know whether it was stolen.''
He also said, though, that ''Looting is a terribly destructive process. In cutting works out of temples, thieves mutilate them. US customs should not allow works into this country unless they have a total clearance from the countries of origin.''
In the absence of such legal safeguards, he said, he would continue buying and keeping smuggled artefacts.
Three years later he bought the warrior statue from Wolff.
Some traders could argue that the Koh Ker statues' removal _ despite the shearing of feet and damage during transport _ may have actually helped preserve them.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers were known to use temple statues as target practice for munitions training, not to mention environmental damage caused by the weather, encroaching jungle and, more recently, urban development.
It wasn't until recent years that the Cambodian government had the means and will to begin to catalogue and actively preserve and recover its heritage.
Nevertheless, the statues survived for 1,000 years, possibly on site, in the open, guarding the Prasat Chen complex.
Eventually their protective powers must have dimmed, because the complex _ statuary and household artefacts looted and lost, temple overgrown and in a state of ruin _ is a shadow of its former self.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker