A plump sandstone Ganesha, claiming to be 12th or 13th century, can be owned for $8,800. A stone torso, billed as a pre-Angkorian 9th-century divinity figure —yours for $3,900.
These are just a couple of the items for sale on auction website eBay that claim to be Cambodian antiquities. A search for the word “Khmer” in eBay’s “antiques” category yesterday gave 200 results, ranging from jewelry to a sculpture that claims to be a 12th-century temple “dvarapala” figure, with a “Buy It Now” tag of $22,200. Though these are only snapshot figures, the same search performed in January 2009 gave fewer than half as many results.
But experts and officials say websites like eBay are rarely monitored for illegally traded artifacts, because determining authenticity of an antique from digital photographs alone is all but impossible.
“You need to touch the stone of a sculpture,” Kong Polin, director of the Department of Antiquity for the Ministry of Culture, said yesterday. “A photo can only give 50 percent.”
Mr Polin admitted that it was likely genuine antiquities were being sold on eBay, but said it was too difficult to sort them from the numerous and frequently accomplished imitations.
“We know there are some real objects abroad and on the website too, but there are so many fakes,” he said. “It is too hard to find them all.”
Lim Bun Hok, cultural officer for Unesco in Cambodia, said that checking the Internet for antiquities was also a low priority in his office.
“To be frank, we don’t follow up on the eBay or the Internet closely. At headquarters, maybe, but in this office, no,” he said.
“I understand the position of the government, because how can you say if they are illegal or legal, fake or real?”
Reviewing some of the items available on eBay on Wednesday, Bertrand Porte, Khmer sculpture expert and conservationist at the Ecole francaise d’extreme-orient, spotted some obvious fakes immediately.
A beatific “Khmer deity in dancing posture,” billed as an original from the 10th-century Angkorian site Koh Ker, can be owned for $6,900—a bargain, Mr Porte said, if it were genuine. “It is an exact copy from a museum in Paris.”
But he said other artifacts could be authentic, including the divinity torso and the $22,200 dvarapala statue.
“It looks good, the patina looks pretty good,” said Mr Porte, while looking at the $22,200 piece. “It’s always so difficult from photos. The break is very fresh. It can be taken [from a temple] recently, but also it can be carved recently…. The torso could be good too. But I would need to investigate it more.”
Cambodia, with its rich cultural heritage and tumultuous recent history, has suffered considerable looting and smuggling of artifacts. Trading in Khmer antiquities peaked during the ’90s, when lingering factions of the Khmer Rouge made some parts of the country off-limits.
Hab Touch, director of the National Museum, said that selling any artifact online from Cambodia would be illegal.
“Under Cambodian law, it is not allowed to export artifacts without permission” from the government, said Hab Touch, director of the National Museum. “If it is outside of Cambodia, it is still not legal because we are not allowed to export.”
Cambodia in 1972 ratified a Unesco convention on illicit trade in cultural property, making it illegal to take artifacts across the border. In 1996, the National Assembly adopted a law to protect cultural property from acts of vandalism, excavations and illicit transfer of ownership, export and import.
But if an object left the country before such laws were established, ownership is technically legal.
The dealer selling the divinity torso said in an e-mail he was aware of the legal and ethical issues surrounding the sale of Khmer artifacts.
“We always ask the source and acquisition date to be certain that it is not an illegal piece and that it has been acquired before 1969,” said Yukhonthip Vongvoern from Eternal Lifestyle Gallery in Thailand. “To be more precise, this piece comes from an auction house…in Bangkok dated from last February. The owner who is a private collector got it in mid ’60s from a dealer in Hong Kong.”
Daniel Feiler, a spokesman from eBay, said yesterday that as eBay provided a marketplace but did not ever take possession of the item, it relied on experts and authorities to inform them of potentially illegal listings.
“There are questionable items, undoubtedly. There are Khmer antiques on the site, and listings that potentially shouldn’t be there but it’s difficult for us to determine that,” Mr Feiler said. “We wait for advice from the experts. “If they identify a listing that might be problematic, we pull it off the site.”
Son Soubert, a Heritage Watch board member and member of the Constitutional Council, conceded that it was difficult to identify and reclaim antiquities. But he maintained that the onus to do remained with the government.
“I think it is the duty of the Ministry of Culture to monitor these pieces to see if they are genuine or not, even on eBay,” he said.