Sotheby’s Traded Hundreds Of Looted Artifacts, Study Says

During the 1990s, a US-based auction house traded hundreds of ancient Khmer artifacts without prop­er documentation on their origins, indicating that most of these ex­pensive antiquities were looted in Cambodia or had left the country il­legally, according to a study re­leased last month.

From 1988 to 2010, Sotheby’s Auction House in New York put 377 Khmer pieces on the auction block, according to research­er Tess Davis from the US Lawyers Com­mittee for Cultural Heritage Pres­ervation.

Of these pieces, 71 percent lacked provenance-—a documented ownership history-—while the remainder had weak prov­enance, according to the study, published online at Spring­er Science + Busi­ness Media.

“None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally…[and] came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambo­dian state,” Ms Davis wrote.

In the 1990s, up to 28 Khmer artifacts per year were sold at Sotheby’s, with numbers spiking early in the decade when Cambo­dia was plagued by organized looting and illicit trading of Angkorian artifacts.

However, auctioning of Khmer artifacts at Sotheby’s had dropped to just a few pieces since 2000, after US-Cambodian bilateral restrictions on the import of ar­cheological material came into place, the study found.

Ms Davis wrote that the findings “suggest an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s.”

The traded antiquities consisted mostly of 11th- and 12th-century Angkorian Hindu and Bud­dhist sculptures and were sold at prices averaging from $17,000 to $24,000. One piece was sold for $600,000.

The “shoddy excavation and looting” of such illicitly traded antiquities, Ms Davis wrote, means that even when they are returned, key archeological information on how a piece was found is lost.

She said Sotheby’s had “repeatedly” been caught auctioning sto­len art and had to return two sandstone heads and a statuette to Cam­­bodia after they were published in “Loot­ing in Angkor: One Hundred Miss­ing Objects,” a 1993 report by Unes­co and the Interna­tional Coun­cil of Museums.

Ms Davis added that the prestigious auction house has refused re­quests from “numerous organizations, scholars, foreign governments and the media” to provide valid prov­enance information for its Khmer sales.

Heritage experts said the illicit antiquities trade at Sotheby’s had coincided with periods of turmoil in Cambodia.

“At that time, in the 1990s, Cam­bodia had problems: There was war and Cambodian people had eco­nom­ic problems,” said Phann Nady, deputy director of the Culture Min­istry’s cultural heritage department. “But in the last five or 10 years, there is not so much” illicit art trade.

Hab Touch, director general for tan­gible heritage at the ministry, said Cambodia was slowly reclaiming its ancient art via bilateral agreements with the US, Australia and Thailand and through the return of artifacts from private collectors.

Mr Touch said the 2010 Cam­bo­­dian Antiquities Red List, a brochure for Interpol and customs officers worldwide with photos of at-risk Khmer artifacts, was also helping stem illicit trade.

He said, however, that so far, only 10 of the 100 missing objects documented in the Unesco/ICOM re­port had been repatriated to Cam­bodia. “We hope that our international friends, who understand that Khmer culture is for Cambodian people, will help us in returning these artifacts,” Mr Touch said.

On Monday, Cambodia urged the return of 36 Khmer artifacts in Thai­land, which were found being smuggled into the country in 2000.

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