Conference Mulls Tactics to Stop Artifact Theft

With thousands of cultural sites poorly documented and unguarded, Cambodia’s cultural heritage has been an easy target for profiteers. Corruption, international criminals and high prices intertwine to make cultural artifacts one of the most lucrative illicit trades in the world.

“Interpol reckons that the illicit cultural object trade is third in the world after drugs and illegal armaments,” said Patrick Boy­lan, professor emeritus of heritage policy and management at City University London.

“If you use your dirty money to acquire a work of art and then sell it on the legitimate market… you’ve laundered that money,” Boy­lan said, speaking on the sidelines of the regional expert meeting on The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which closed in Phnom Penh Wednesday.

Boylan suggested the illicit artifacts trade could be slowed at the sales level. If artifacts are harder to sell, their value drops.

“The majority of [Cambodian] objects looted and exported, in my view, were in the 1990s,” said Etienne Clement, representative to Cambodia for the UN Edu­cational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which jointly organized the conference with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As a rich neighbor with a long, porous border, Thailand is a destination for much of Cambodia’s illicit trade—cultural and otherwise. However, authorities have been increasingly cooperative in recent years.

“The trade in Thailand is a threat, but the official position is quite positive,” Clement said.

Thai police intercepted about half of the artifacts looted by the Cambodian military from Ban­teay Chmar, near Sisophon in Ban­­teay Meanchey province, and returned them two years ago, Clement said.

The other half, however, re­main lost.

South east Asia is not only a source of plundered relics; it is also a major destination and middleman for artworks on the way to Paris or New York.

Cultural antiquities are readily available at Bangkok’s Riverside Shopping Center, said Ricardo Favis, consultant for culture at Unesco’s Bangkok office

“Just to give you an idea, When the Iraq war exploded and the Baghdad museum was ransacked, two weeks later we re­ceived reports that some of those artifacts were on sale in that market,” Favis said.

Abdul Wasey Feroozi, president of Preservation of Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan for the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, said that the destruction of cultural artifacts by the Taliban as a religious and political statement was only one side of the cultural damage to Afghan­istan during conflict.

“The Mafia had their own policy,” Feroozi said. “[Mujahedeen] commanders in these parties had close connections in other countries.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen who delivered the closing address Wednesday that the loss of Cam­bo­dia’s cultural treasures was primarily during peacetime, unlike other countries in the throes of conflict.

“The damage [in Cambodia] is caused by looting,” Hun Sen said. “Mostly it has not been caused by bombs exploding. In Fallujah and the sacred sites of Iraq, we see that they are worse than Cambo­dians, because they bomb next to temples.”

But, Hun Sen noted that war had done some damage to Cambodia’s cultural treasures, such as the Khmer Rouge soldiers who took stones from temples in Kompong Cham province to build a dam.

Some countries are hesitant to have special cultural protection agreements for the possible outbreak of war because it may be perceived as aggressive by peace-time neighbors, Boylan said.

A more integrated approach protecting artifacts from war, natural disasters and crime is increasingly used to frame protection as apolitical, he added.

During remarks at the conference Monday, National Assem­bly President Prince Nor­odom Ranariddh stressed voluntary donation over legal action in attempts to repatriate cultural objects plundered from Cambo­dia.

“We want to appeal to foreign countries and rich foreign collectors to voluntarily return the objects back to Cambodia,” the prince said.

He suggested that repatriated objects displayed in the National Museum should bear the donors’ names to encourage others to do the same.

Prince Ranariddh said that many of the artifacts looted during civil war and scattered around the world are in France, but said it is fortunate that many objects are well cared-for in French museums.

National courts in some countries, such as the US and Great Britain, will hold hearings on individual items, but the cost of bringing lawsuits is prohibitive and items’ provenance is often difficult to prove, Boylan said.

International conventions from 1970 and 1995 address the repatriation of illegally exported artifacts, but they apply only to items transported between member countries after ratification. Items acquired before ratification or lacking clear provenance are extremely difficult to reacquire.

Boylan said that documentation could also be made more practical; most academic descriptions are useless to the average customs worker, but exact measurements and description of distinctive imperfections are easy for a layperson to understand.

Favis, however, was more pessimistic.

“Who owns them?” He asked. “They are the powerful. They are the rich. What can we do?”

(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)

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