A sandstone sculpture billed as an original Angkorian artifact is being auctioned for a starting bid of $4,648 by Arte da Vinci, a German antiquities dealer.
But there’s no need for buyers to visit Munich, because Arte Da Vinci, like many antiquities dealers nowadays, is seeking customers seated comfortably at their computers through the online auctioneer Web site eBay. In the second half of January, NGO Heritage Watch researcher Lindsey Callahan catalogued at least 69 objects that appear to be legitimate Angkorian pieces for sale on eBay.
“Some of them just look blatantly fake,” she said, though determining authenticity from small digital photos is all but impossible.
But even if proved genuine, repatriating antiquities by use of international law is a tangle of unproven origins and legal loopholes.
Apsara Authority deputy director general Soeung Song said that artifacts removed before Cambodia’s 1996 antiquities law are very difficult to repatriate.
But Tamara Teneishvili, head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s culture unit, said that even artifacts circulating on the market since before the law have some chance of repatriation.
“The Cambodian government could use the international convention, could use some advocacy,” Teneishvili said.
Most of the artifacts Callahan has discovered online came from three major dealers, one of which, KaiZen Antiques, is billed as Singaporean but lists its objects as currently located in Phnom Penh.
If the artifacts are really located in Phnom Penh, selling them abroad them would be illegal, Heritage Watch project coordinator Terressa Davis said. But the only listing under the name Kaizen in the Phnom Penh telephone book is an air conditioner shop.
“Twenty years ago a guy sitting at his desk in Ohio wouldn’t have been able to buy an Angkorian sandstone sculpture,” Davis said. “EBay is just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s the low end, which is why we were surprised to find so much statuary.”
Higher-end sales of antiquities, including elite galleries and auction houses, are also increasingly online.
“This is a business…It’s not somebody who found grandma’s old knick-knack and realized how much it was worth,” Callahan said. “It’s point-and-click pillaging.”