How a statue looted from a Cambodian temple revealed a vast smuggling network dealing in stolen cultural artefacts

The tracing of how a statue of a Hindu warrior ended up in a Sotheby’s auction uncovered a highly lucrative network that had been in operation for decades.

The five-hour journey from Phnom Penh had already been arduous. The acrid smell of burning rice stubble hung in the air as the jeep snaked slowly along red laterite roads in Cambodia’s northeast, overgrown with dense foliage where old skull-and-bone warning signs lay in the brush – stark reminders of landmines still present from the Khmer Rouge occupation and the subsequent civil war that consumed the country for more than a decade after their reign ended, in 1979.

It was March 2005 and, bouncing around in an army-green 1976 GMC jeep, archaeologists Tess Davis and Dougald O’Reilly trundled towards their destination, the ancient temples of the once-fabled city of Lingapura, the Khmer capital built by King Jayavarman IV in AD921, known today as Koh Ker.

Davis’ Cambodian street dog, Penhois, sat obediently on her lap as they came to a stop, and they all jumped out and visited various temple sites.

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