Thailand has agreed to return 95 looted Cambodian artifacts, including some from statues in Angkor Archaeological Park, cultural officials said Monday.
Among the artifacts, seized in separate raids at the Thai border earlier this year, are the 50-kg Penis of Eavso, from a statue in Angkor, a 10-kg animal head, a 5-kg statue of the Hindu goddess Ganesh and a Buddha statue, Banteay Meanchey province Department of Culture official Heang Tem said.
The Thais seized the large artifacts, ripped from Khmer-style statues, along with dozens of vases, cups and plates, along Cambodia’s northern border Jan 23. Cambodia has listed the artifacts as missing and negotiations on their return have dragged on for months, Heang Tem said.
Thailand agreed last week to return the artifacts soon. All 95 artifacts date from between the sixth and the 12th centuries, Agency for International Cooperation, Culture and Asian Affairs officer Ouk Lay said.
It is likely smugglers were carrying the stolen artifacts into Thailand so forgers could make mock-ups of them to sell to tourists, Ouk Lay said.
Looted relics typically work their way through Thailand before reaching the international art markets, where they sometimes fetch thousands of dollars, and can even be bought legally since there is no paperwork on their origins.
Observers and activists say the international market for looted art is now a bigger business than the global drug trade.
Although government and international cooperation have helped to curb the looting of Cambodia’s Angkorian temples, small artifacts—like plates, cup and baubles—are still being plundered at an alarming rate.
The problem is poverty, Ouk Lay said. “Our people are very poor,” he said. “They sell artifacts without thinking.”
Military police officials recently suggested offering bonuses to officers who seize smuggled artifacts—an idea that drew fire from critics who blamed the police for selling the artifacts in the first place.