Even With the Khmer Rouge Gone, Cambodian Antiquities Are Still Looted

The Observer, 12 April 2017: “I went into it because I thought I might be able to afford to buy what I thought was a copy of a Cambodian statue in the window. Then the man named a price which was absolutely incredible. I said, ‘Do you mean that this piece is authentic?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Then you are a thief.’”

An exiled prince tries to recover antiquities stolen from his home country of Cambodia.

Source: Even With the Khmer Rouge Gone, Cambodian Antiquities Are Still Looted | Observer

Buyer Beware: US Market for Ancient Asian Art Still the Wild, Wild East | The Diplomat

A piece by Tess Davis of the Antiquities Coalition on the lessons we can learn from the looting situation in Cambodia and how it applies to world’s trouble spots today.


Cambodia’s story is a warning for the art world, but also for the international community. Over the past century, we’ve watched brutal regimes, extremists, and organized criminals all traffic in heritage to fund their activities. We’ve seen that trafficking is not just a side effect of armed conflict; it is a driver of violence. And we’ve learned that the illicit trade in heritage can far outlive the conflicts that created them, and that peace can, counterintuitively, open up new markets and buyers for antiquities.

Source: Buyer Beware: US Market for Ancient Asian Art Still the Wild, Wild East | The Diplomat

Ghost ships: why are World War II naval wrecks vanishing in Indonesia?

Natali Pearson discusses the recent cases of underwater looting of World War II shipwrecks in Indonesia

Sunken World War II warships, the final resting place for thousands of sailors, have been disappearing in Indonesia. But so far there’s been little action taken to ensure their protection.

Source: Ghost ships: why are World War II naval wrecks vanishing in Indonesia?

Stolen Buriram lintel believed found in San Francisco

A lintel that was stolen from an Angkorian temple in Thailand’s Buriram province is believed to be found in a museum at San Francisco.

Lintel believed to be stolen from Buriram province. Source: Bangkok Post 20160804
Lintel believed to be stolen from Buriram province. Source: Bangkok Post 20160804

Priceless Buri Ram lintel found in San Francisco
Bangkok Post, 04 August 2016

A Buri Ram-based conservation group has kick-started a campaign to press for the return of a “lintel”, a decorative object above a gate, believed to have been smuggled out of Thailand decades ago.

Tanongsak Harnwong, leader of Samnuek 300 Ong conservation group, said the pre-Angkorean lintel, which was made of white sandstone in the Kleang-Baphuon style and featured Lord Yama, or the god of death, surrounded by flowers, was on exhibition at the Chong Moon Lee museum in San Francisco. It was believed to have been stolen from Nong Hong temple in Buri Ram’s Non Dindaeng district some 50 years ago.

He said the group obtained a photo of the lintel and compared it with one taken by the late archaeologist Manit Vallibhotama, who took the photo of the famous Vishnu reclining on the Serpent Ananta lintel at Phanom Rung sanctuary, and found the two were identical. “They look like the same item,” said the businessman-turned-conservationist who was involved in the restoration of Nong Hong temple in 2002-2003.

Full story here.

New book on Battambang Museum collection aimed at preventing sale of stolen statues

The Cambodian Museum of Culture has just published a book of stolen antiquities from the Battambang museum, a move which will likely assist in the future repatriation of artefacts if they show up in the art market.

Images from the Wat Po Veal museum. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160607
Images from the Wat Po Veal museum. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160607

With New Book, Quest to Recover Stolen Battambang Statues Begins
Cambodia Daily, 07 June 2016

The Ministry of Culture released a book on Monday of about 68 Khmer sculptures that were stolen from museums in Battambang City during decades of war and conflict, and intends to use the publication in a global search to recover the artifacts.

The result of a painstaking investigation by a restoration team from the National Museum assisted by the French School of the Far East (EFEO), the book proves that, until the early 1970s, the sculptures were at the Battambang Provincial Museum or the Wat Po Veal Museum.

“We want, first of all, to alert the owners of these pieces that what they have is illegally owned: This belongs to the national inventory of Cambodia,” said Anne Lemaistre, country representative for Unesco, which supported the book project.

Full story here.

The legacy of the Ban Chiang discovery

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Ban Chiang culture in Thailand’s Udon Thani province. This article from the Isaan Record features and interview with Dr Joyce White and her involvement with the site.

Burials at Ban Chiang. Source: The Isaan Record 20160420
Burials at Ban Chiang. Source: The Isaan Record 20160420

The legacy of Ban Chiang: Archaeologist Joyce White talks about Thailand’s most famous archaeological site
The Isaan Record, 20 April 2016

Fifty years ago in August, in the village of Ban Chiang near Udon Thani, a visiting American student named Stephen Young tripped over an exposed tree root and fell atop the rim of a clay pot partly buried in the village path. His tumble set into motion two joint Thai-American archaeological expeditions to Ban Chiang in the 1970s that exposed the extent of prehistoric burial sites beneath the village, sites filled with thousands of pieces of pottery and metalwork buried as grave goods by Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples at different times between 4200 and 1800 years ago. The Ban Chiang finds revealed unexpected technological and artistic development among the peoples of the region and challenged prevailing ideas about the prehistory of Southeast Asia.

American archaeologist Dr. Joyce White is the Director of the Ban Chiang project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, USA, where she has studied the finds from Ban Chiang since 1976. She is an expert witness for the US Department of Justice in an ongoing antiquities trafficking case that in 2014 resulted in the return of many smuggled Ban Chiang items to Thailand.

Full story here.

Koh Ker Rama statue returns to Cambodia

The last Koh Ker statue not in a private collection has finally been returned to Cambodia by the Denver Art Museum in a ceremony last month.

Koh Ker statue returns to Cambodia. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160329
Koh Ker statue returns to Cambodia. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160329

Pomp greets Rama statue’s return from US
Phnom Penh Post, 29 March 2016

Ancient Khmer Rama Statue Officially Received by Government
Cambodia Daily, 29 March 2016

US museum returns 10th century Khmer statue to Cambodia
AP, via Washington Post, 28 March 2016

US museum returns ancient Hindu god statue to Cambodia
BBC News, 28 March 2016

US Museum Returns Stolen Rama Statue
Cambodia Daily, 29 February 2016

Cambodian warrior comes home: Denver Art Museum returns Khmer statue
The Art Newspaper, 26 February 2016

Recently returned after 30 years in a US museum, a priceless Angkorian statue looted from war-torn Cambodia in the early 1970s was feted at the Council of Ministers yesterday.

The 1.6-metre-tall 10th-century Torso of Rama statue was returned by the Denver Art Museum after archaeologists from the Apsara Authority were able to prove that the artefact was looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Preah Vihear province, National Museum director Kong Vireak said yesterday.

The statue’s return, which actually took place in late February, was officially marked in a handover ceremony at the Council of Ministers yesterday morning.

Using forensic techniques, the archaeologists demonstrated that the statue, which is missing its head, arms and feet, was originally connected with a plinth found at the Koh Ker archaeological site, which was heavily looted during the civil war.

The Denver Art Museum had reportedly purchased the footless statue in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York.

Full story here.

Asian Civilisations Museum to return statue to India

After a formal request by the government of India, the Asian Civilisations Museum will return a bronze statue of Uma Parameshvari, which was identified as stolen in the recent high-profile antiquities looting case of Subhash Kapoor.

Statue of Uma Parameshvari to be returned by the Asian Civilisations Museum. Source: Straits Times 20151020
Statue of Uma Parameshvari to be returned by the Asian Civilisations Museum. Source: Straits Times 20151020

Asian Civilisations Museum to return ‘stolen’ 11th-century artefact to India
The Straits Times, 20 October 2015

Asian Civilisations Museum to return sculpture identified as stolen from India
Channel NewsAsia, 19 October 2015

The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) said yesterday it would return a sculpture identified as stolen, upon the request of the Indian government.

‘Stolen’ artefact puts murky issues in spotlight
The Straits Times, 23 October 2015

The 11th-century bronze sculpture depicting Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari is among hundreds of stolen cultural artefacts amounting to over $148 million in an ongoing international art smuggling case. They are believed to have been looted and sold to museums by disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, 65, who is awaiting trial in India on charges of theft and smuggling.

In a press statement, the ACM said it had bought the sculpture from Kapoor’s now-defunct gallery Art of the Past for US$650,000 (S$900,000) in 2007.

Full story here and here.

Backyard looting in Cambodia

The Phnom Penh Post has a feature on how looting of artefacts in Angkor Borei has become a cottage industry. It is heartbreaking to see on many levels – first, the locals do it in order to earn a bit of extra case but the cash isn’t that much at all. Secondly, this is a reminder to not buy artefacts, even from ‘reputed’ dealers in Thailand. They are almost certainly looted, and contributes nothing to the local economy.

Pottery at the Angkor Borei museum. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20150808
Pottery at the Angkor Borei museum. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20150808

Ancient treasures in the backyard
Phnom Penh Post, 08 August 2015

Angkor Borei – about 70km south of Phnom Penh – is thought to be the location of one of Southeast Asia’s earliest cities. But rather than being protected and studied, looting of the remaining artefacts has become a subsistence-level cottage industry for the current residents.

Cambodian antiquity and land laws deem all ancient artefacts state property, though Savorn said police turn a blind eye provided he keeps the digging on his own land.

While Sambath said most artefacts found their way to the global antiquities market via Thailand, Savorn said he had no idea who ultimately bought his wares. All he knew, he added, was that he sold the items to Khmer middlemen.

“The things that I find are not really valuable, only tiny bits of gold, and jars and pots I sell cheaply for around 3,000 to 4,000 riel,” he said, adding that the most he ever made was 50,000 riel ($12.50) from a gold piece.

Full story here.

The voices arguing against repatriation

Coming from a region that falls victim to frequent looting of archaeological sites, I personally find it hard to agree against the repatriation of artefacts that have been proven to be stolen, such as the case of the Koh Ker sculpture that still remains in the Denver Museum of Art.

Experts disagree over antiquity repatriations
Phnom Penh Post, 23 May 2015

While an unknown number of looted Cambodian artefacts – mostly taken during the turbulent 1970s and ’80s – are scattered in private collections around the world, a number have found their way into major museums’ exhibits. The recently returned Hanuman statue, for instance, was one of nine statues looted from Prasat Chen temple in the Koh Ker temple complex.

Four of the other Prasat Chen statues have been repatriated by various US museums and auction houses in recent years, three are unaccounted for, while a torso of the Hindu god Rama remains in the Denver Museum of Art.

“I would be very grateful to these private owners, if they read these lines, to give them back generously to Cambodia to reunify the nine sculptures of this unique but incomplete ensemble depicting the Mahabharata,” said Anne LeMaistre, head of UNESCO in Cambodia.

Full story here.