Ordinary People Return Extraordinary Artifacts

In 1993, the International Council of Museums published a sad little booklet titled “One Hundred Missing Objects: Looting in Angkor.” It was the art world’s equivalent of posting photographs of missing children around town in the hopes that someone, somewhere, would help a vanished victim come home.

These weren’t missing children, however, but artifacts stolen from the temples of Angkor or what was supposed to be a safe harbor, the grounds of the Conservation d’Angkor at Siem Reap.

Thieves stole heads, hands and fragments, as well as entire statues and bas-reliefs. They left behind headless torsos and broken ankles, apsaras with shattered faces and nagas sheltering empty air where the Buddha had been.

Eight years later, things are looking up.

Of the 100 missing objects, 19 have been found, and have either already been returned to Cambodia or are on their way. And as private collectors die and heirs sell off the collections, more missing works likely will be found.

“Usually, every month, we hear of something,” says Etienne Clement, who heads the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, which recently hosted an international meeting on stolen art.

The past two years, he says, have seen a remarkable improvement in a situation that once seemed desperate. Officials from Prime Minister Hun Sen on down now vie with each other in promising to protect the nation’s heritage.

“Now, there is the political will to tackle the problem,” Clement says.

But despite the new political will, Cambodia lags behind other poor or war-torn countries such as Ghana and Lebanon in protecting its heritage and in working to get it back.

Experts in fighting art theft say Cambodia needs more personnel, training and technology to protect what is left of its treasures.

When ICOM published “Looting in Angkor,” Cambodia was an art thief’’s dream: a poor country with a large, poorly educated population potentially willing to steal artifacts to feed their families.

Cambodia had been ravaged by decades of wars and protecting art was a luxury—something to worry about after people had enough to eat. Its spectacular cultural heritage was poorly understood by most of its own people and so far-flung it was difficult to protect.

The 1990s began with armed looters raiding the Conservation d’Angkor, where some of the country’s most exquisite sculptures were kept. And they ended with the 1999 theft of an entire temple wall at Banteay Chhmar, where 600 soldiers spent a month loading carvings onto trucks bound for Thailand.

That theft was so big, so brazen, that Clement thinks it might have marked a psychological turning point for Cambodia.

Although about half the stolen material was recovered by Thai authorities, the episode “was a black eye for the country,” generating headlines worldwide and exposing the government as unable to control its own troops, he said.

As bad as Cambodia’s losses have been, they are just a fraction of the vast international trade in stolen artwork, stretching from ancient European capitals to the far reaches of the Earth.

By some estimates, the trade totals about $10 billion per year, second only to illegal drugs.

But while the world’s art experts and museum officials are banding together to fight the thievery, the most effective tools available today—computer databases and CD-Roms featuring color photographs of stolen objects—are out of reach for Cambodian law enforcement officials.

Interpol has been tracking stolen art since 1947, and maintaining a computer database since 1995. Since 1999, that database has been available to the 178 countries that form Interpol.

Countries can also subscribe to Interpol’s CD-Rom service, a detailed listing of stolen artworks, including color photographs, which is updated every two months.

But none of that technology is being tapped by Cambodia, although it belongs to the international police organization. “Cambodia Interpol does not communicate with us,” said Jean Pierre Jouanny, a specialist in Interpol’s unit of cultural properties.

Calls to Kim Channee, head of Cambodian Interpol, were not returned. At the Interpol offices at the Ministry of Interior, the doors were padlocked on a recent workday afternoon.

“It is my understanding that [the office] is not active now, but it will be soon,” said Unesco’s Clement.

The art world is subject to fads and fits like the rest of society, and Asian art is hot right now. Khmer art, due to its scarcity and great beauty, has always had its devotees.

A few years ago, African art was all the rage, and some nations were virtually stripped as a result.

Kwasi Myles, in Cambodia recently to represent the Organization of Museums, Monuments and Sites in Africa at the Unesco meeting on stolen art, said the looting began during the colonial era and grew worse during periods of civil strife.

In Ghana, he said, “Like all developing countries, we have always a dilemma: how to afford to protect art when people are hungry.”

Ghana’s solution has been to teach school children the value of their heritage, and to take artworks to isolated villages, explaining their cultural significance to farmers.

“Now some farmers, when they find artifacts, will take them to the village chief,” he said. “We pay the villagers a small reward, but explain that the object is priceless and belongs to everyone, and that future generations can learn from it.”

Lebanon, with a huge archeological looting problem exacerbated by years of war, faces somewhat different challenges.

Its National Museum was virtually destroyed during the war, “and when we rebuilt it, we wanted to do something really beautiful,” says Suzy Hakimian, an archeologist and state museum conservator.

Lavishing attention and money on the new museum showed the population how important antiquities were to the government, she says, and the new museum is a hit. “People now are really proud of it.”

More direct action included passing stringent laws barring the export of any antiquities, and refusing to renew dealers’ licenses when they expired.

“The situation was so bad, we had to,” she says. “I don’t know why, but the dealers didn’t object. Of course, maybe I am being naive, and they just kept dealing, clandestinely.”

Unlike Cambodia’s documented monuments, most of the art stolen from Lebanon disappears from archeological digs. Since legitimate digs are guarded, thieves have taken to digging on their own, Hakimian says.

The problem with that is, once a piece is gone, it is probably gone forever. Lebanon has no way of proving an artifact came from Lebanon and not Syria, Israel or Jordan, she says.

Even worse, she says, archeologists can learn little from a piece ripped out of its context; nothing about the lives of its makers, or the culture of the people who used it.

Developing countries like to blame the developed world for the thriving trade in stolen art, saying that if rich people didn’t buy artifacts, they wouldn’t be stolen in the first place.

While that is certainly true, says Hillary Bauer of the UK’s cultural property unit, developed nations have problems of their own.

England, for example, is plagued by nocturnal enthusiasts equipped with metal detectors, who sneak out at night and dig up ancient coins and artifacts like felonious squirrels.

The Salisbury hoard, an unusual cache of more than 500 artifacts from both the Bronze and Iron ages, was uncovered in 1985 by two such coin poachers, digging illegally on private land.

The coins and metal artifacts were quickly sold and dispersed to collectors worldwide. Detective work by a British Museum curator led to the eventual recovery of two-thirds of the hoard, and the two poachers were convicted of theft.

But although the Salisbury investigation was far more successful than most, a third of the trove has never been recovered. Most thieves are not caught, and police can only guess at what is being dug up across the UK.

As for artifacts brought home during England’s colonial era, Bauer says the government is limited in what it can do. “Unless it’s a local [government-funded] museum, or a university, the government can’t just dictate [solutions],” she explains.

Museums can, on their own, choose to return items. The Glasgow Museum in Scotland returned a Lakota Ghost Dance shirt sought by Indians in the US state of South Dakota; the museum mounted an exhibit about the controversy, and now has a harmonious relationship with the Indians, exchanging cultural items regularly.

But in one of the world’s most famous disputes, the British government recently announced it sees no reason to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece. The marble bas-reliefs, carved to adorn the Parthenon, were looted about 200 years ago and reside today in the British Museum.

Interpol’s Jean-Pierre Jouanny says France and Italy lead the agency’s list of most-robbed nations, in part because of better reporting but also because they have the kind of expensive art thieves cherish.

And Europe faces years of difficult litigation over the return of art stolen during World War II, looted first by the Nazis and then by Allied soldiers. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union, it can be difficult to figure out in which country even to begin a search.

There are tools available for developing nations as well. The  “Looting in Angkor” book has already led to the return of one in five of the 100 items stolen from Cambodia.

The ICOM has produced similar lists of high-profile art stolen in Africa and Latin America, and its Web site, www.icom.org, posts a Red List of missing African archeological objects.

Thanks to its long relationship to the L’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, a cultural preservation organization sponsored by the French government, Cambodia is actually luckier than many other small, poor countries. For more than a century, French archeologists and art experts at the school photographed and documented many of the country’s treasures.

The entire collection at the Conservation d’Angkor was documented in 1971, and again in 1999—“so now we know what is missing,” says Clement.

The French are also about to begin a massive project to photograph all carved surfaces at sites across Cambodia, a record that will prove invaluable in recovering material looted in the future.

And a growing body of international law means that Cambodia may well get looted items back, or at least be compensated for them.

Helpful as all that may be, Cambodia’s most effective anti-theft weapon may be its people.

Sometimes it’s a dust-stained old woman on the back of a moto, clutching something heavy wrapped in a krama; sometimes it’s a village policeman, pulling a bundle from the trunk of a share-taxi.

Or it can be a high government official, who may have come by the item under questionable circumstances.

But between 50 and 100 times a year, Cambodians bearing gifts arrive at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Maybe it’s something they found in the forest, while digging a new ditch, or something they talked a delinquent nephew into giving up.

Given how poor most of the finders are, and how potentially valuable the artifacts, it’s extraordinary that so many are brought to authorities for safekeeping instead of being sold to traders.

“The Cambodian people have a sincere respect for their cultural heritage,” says Clement.

Bertrand Porte, who heads the museum’s restoration workshop, agrees.

Khmer people cherish religious artifacts, he says. “They don’t want to keep them at home. They want them at a pagoda or a museum, where they will be protected.”

On a recent morning, a number of returned items were being examined at the workshop. One, a 9th century male divinity, was a better testament to its owner’s heart than his judgment.

The Washington, DC, collector, learning that much Khmer art was stolen, had voluntarily returned the piece to Cambodia. Porte knew as soon as he saw it that something was fishy.

The body was beautiful, but the head was strange-looking and too large. Testing revealed the whole thing was an elaborate forgery.

But the story of a second battered piece of sandstone, lying unceremoniously on the floor next to a workbench, had a glorious ending.

It was just about a year ago when villagers near the Preah Khan temple in Kompong Svay alerted some French archeologists to a curious stone.

At first glance, it looked like a boulder. But hauled upright, the 150-kg stone proved to be the remnants of the torso of a fleshy man. Though arms and legs were gone, it looked as though he had once been sitting in the lotus position.

The villagers had found the 12th century body of Jayavarman VII, whose tranquilly meditating head is perhaps the best-known image in Khmer art and the heart and soul of the National Museum’s collection.

Museum officials are still deciding whether to reunite body and head, and how to display the restored god-king if they do.

Thanks to the villagers, they now have a choice.

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