An ex-diplomat and king’s head: Inside the secret global trade of Asian art

What Europe’s largest private collection of Asian art says about the trade in cultural heritage.

The tale of the small, gold Buddha begins more than 200 years ago, when a goldsmith crafts it for the court of the Cambodian king. It ends — as far as it’s possible to tell — in 2018, when István Zelnik, a Hungarian former diplomat with a penchant for antiques, puts it up for sale on an online auction site.

Then, like so many other fragments of art and heritage from lower-income countries like Cambodia, the Buddha — perched on his silver throne — disappears into private hands. The Cambodian government says the statue, and hundreds of antiquities like it, should never have been sold.

At a time when museums around the world are wrestling with the sometimes questionable provenances of their collections, the story of the gold Buddha — and that of the man who bought and sold it — offers a window into the private antiquities trade, a multi-billion dollar industry in which tens of thousands of pieces of cultural heritage change hands in plain sight with little or no regulatory oversight of how they ended up on the market in the first place.

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