The 12th-century Khmer statue taken from Angkor Wat stands 71 centimeters tall. An arm is missing, but otherwise it’s an excellent example of the sculptured female divinities seen inside the galleries of the ancient walled temple.
But this Cambodian artifact can’t be found in the National Museum or any other museum with a collection of Angkorian artifacts. Instead, it showed up for sale on eBay, an Internet auction site based in the US.
In a brief description of the statue, the seller from the US state of New York noted it was purchased from an antique dealer in Bangkok. Bidding started at $5,000.
Most other Khmer artifacts found online begin as low as $1. A recent search on eBay turned up 60 items with Khmer in the title, from 11th-century bronze gongs to Cambodian trinkets probably carved on a Phnom Penh sidewalk last year.
But the majority of sellers purported their wares were the real deal, Angkorian artifacts direct from the eras of Suryavarman and Jayavarman.
This is exactly what has experts in the field of Khmer antiquities raising their eyebrows over these Internet sales. They suspect the deals are the result of rampant pilfering in far-flung monuments throughout Cambodia.
For $9.50 a buyer can pocket a set of rare Angkorian coins, or for $3,150 decorate his living room with a 12th-century sandstone panel, which the seller claims was probably taken from above the doorway of a Cambodian temple.
Another seller, this one from Thailand, described a 13th-century decorative “ritual conch” as being in good condition. He guaranteed the buyer would be 100 percent satisfied, but offered no proof the conch was legitimately procured nor any proof of official authorization for its sale. Its starting bid was $1 dollar. Eight days into the auction, the price climbed to $430 in 18 bids.
How are these artifacts moving from Cambodian temples and historic sites into the possession of sellers from Japan, Thailand, the US and elsewhere eager to unload them to buyers from around the world via the Internet?
One of the few sellers that responded to that question was from Japan. He was offering a bronze statue from the 12th or 13th century. “The figure of Lakshmi belongs to a friend of mine who has collected South East Asian artifacts for 35 years and I did not ask details on how this item came to him,” the seller said.
But some experts would guess it came to the seller through the trade in illegally trafficked artifacts.
“That’s directly from illicit excavation,” said Tamara Teneishvili, program specialist for Unesco’s World Heritage Unit, pointing to “rare, prehistoric Khmer shell beads” that supposedly date to 1500 BC. The opening bid on eBay for them was $1.
This is just the kind of item stolen from archeological sites, Teneishvili said. Sites are often looted at night, and the spoils are smuggled through Cambodia’s porous borders, she said.
From there, the artifacts end up on the black market and are circulated throughout the world.
Although Teneishvili’s claim is backed by years of experience in the field of Cambodian antiquities, proving without a doubt the beads were stolen from an archaeological dig or unearthed at some other remote monument is nearly impossible.
“It’s an extremely complicated process to prove that something has been stolen from Cambodia,” Teneishvili said.
The trouble authorities have with proving something has been swiped from Cambodia is largely the lack of documentation or proof as to when the item was taken from the country.
Pilfered artifacts from Cambodia typically fall into three categories, said Etienne Clement, legal expert for cultural heritage protection for Unesco in Cambodia.
The first variety comprises pieces stolen long before national or international law protected cultural artifacts in Cambodia. Many of these items were taken during French colonial rule and now fill the galleries of private collectors, he said. These are completely legal, “but that doesn’t mean its morally acceptable,” he said.
Second are the relics swiped during the Khmer Rouge or Vietnamese occupation and after the Unesco convention of 1970 that prohibited the “illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.” Many artifacts in this category were stolen directly from the National Museum, so there is documentation that they once belonged to Cambodia during the protected period. Cambodia and Unesco can seek the return of these artifacts.
The third group includes many of the beheaded statues, carvings pried from temple walls and bronze trinkets found on Internet auction sites like eBay. “For those, there is no clear evidence,” Clement said.
Dougald O’Reilly, an archeologist who has led expeditions of pre-Angkorian sites in remote locations in Cambodia, said Internet auctions sites like eBay are making it much easier for traffickers in stolen artifacts to find buyers.
Even more than flooding the market for souvenir-seeking armchair tourists, these pillaged antiquities are “definitely contributing to the loss of information,” O’Reilly said. “It’s the loss of scientific data. We are interested in where [these items] come from.”
When looters scour sites and flee with whatever they can carry, those items simply become objects. Once removed, O’Reilly said, the item loses the historical connections scientists would use to learn more about pre-Angkorian society.
In addition to the Unesco convention of 1970, other protections exist to prevent artifacts from being taken from Cambodia. US law, for example, also prohibits the importation of stone archeological sculptures from Cambodia.
Even on the eBay site under its section on policies regarding the sale of artifacts, sellers are warned to “make certain you have documents such as export permits and receipts, although these do not necessarily confer ownership.” The site also informs buyers that “one cannot have legal title to art/artifacts/antiquities that were stolen, no matter how many times such items may have changed hands.”
But clamping down on the sale of pilfered items appearing on eBay or elsewhere would be a massive undertaking that would require countless man-hours, experts said.
Teneishvili said tighter restrictions on what can be imported into the US might help. Bronze and ceramic pieces, which are seen more frequently on eBay than stone pieces, should have the same protection as stonework.
“When it comes to fighting illegal trafficking of any kind, you have to deal both with poverty and the greed,” Teneishvili said.
That has been the perpetual battle for international agencies working to thwart the sale of stolen antiquities and art, whether the pieces were swiped from the temples at Angkor or the museums of Paris.
But there is still another possibility of the origin of these old bells and Buddhas showing up for sale online. They’re simply fakes.