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.