The chisel marks are clearly visible on the finely carved fragment of a 12th century Angkor lintel.
The representation of a dancing Shiva appears between two rearing horses surrounded by lotus buds and scrollwork. Below Shiva is a tala, a representation of a demon.
However, those all too visible chisel marks are not the work of the 12th century artist who created the frieze; they are those of the looters who removed the panel from above a Khmer temple doorway.
And now anyone can own it for as little as $3,900—the “Buy It Now” price on the online auction website eBay.
“This piece was taken from a site,” Bertrand Porte, Khmer sculpture expert and conservationist with Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, said by telephone after viewing photos of the eBay auction item Wednesday. “It was clearly looted from a temple,” he said.
A word search for “Khmer” on US-based eBay Wednesday returned 250 items, including the 12th century Angkor fragment. About a third of the items returned from the search were antiquities or artifacts. They range from trinkets to a 14th century Angkorian lion sculpture costing $11,000.
There is no provenance—what auctioneers call documented proof that an artifact was obtained in a legal manner—available for the Khmer artifacts up for online sale. An interested buyer must contact the seller to determine if there is any provenance.
In Cambodia, it would be illegal to buy the items available on eBay, said Hab Touch, director of the National Museum of Cambodia.
“Based on Cambodian law, these items are not for sale,” he said. “It is illegal.”
Laws are in place that make it illegal for cultural heritage artifacts to be brought across Cambodia’s border without government permission. It has been a crime to move antiquities across the border since the adoption of the 1970 Unesco “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.”
The trade in Khmer artifacts probably reached its peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, when parts of the country were still off-limits due to continued fighting with elements of the Khmer Rouge.
In 2003, Cambodia ratified a 1995 Unidroit convention that requires the holder of an artifact to return it to the state of origin if it is stolen.
Also in 2003, Cambodia and the US signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the import of Khmer archaeological material into the US, Terressa Davis, project coordinator for Heritage Watch, said via e-mail. That agreement was renewed for another five years and expanded in 2008.
eBay warns sellers to “comply with all governmental laws and regulations,” but warns shoppers that the “[s]eller assumes all responsibility for listing this item.”
The dealer selling the Angkor lintel on eBay, Kaizen International, located in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail that the Shiva artifact was obtained legally a long time ago.
The piece was acquired by an American living in Thailand who acquired it legally in late 1960s when he was in the army during the US War in Vietnam, Kaizen wrote in the e-mail.
There was a period before cultural and national laws were established, too, when artifacts left the country freely. Possession of those items is technically legal.
Davis said it is quite possible that the Internet auctions are legal; it just depends on the particular sale.
Whether online sales are legal or not, officials agree there should be no doubt in people’s minds that much of what is going on is not morally upstanding.
“A lot of pieces still move from Cambodia to the international black market of antiquities,” Hab Touch said.
“We don’t have enough resources to look worldwide,” he said. “We would welcome the cooperation of the international community.”
“I am sad that such remarkable pieces stand in private houses for so few to enjoy,” Hab Touch added.
If an artifact is identified as belonging to Cambodia under cultural heritage conventions, the Minister of Culture must contact Unesco in Cambodia, said Son Soubert, Heritage Watch board member and member of the Constitutional Council.
“Usually the country Cambodia acts, contacts Unesco with photography, documentation, and Unesco puts out an announcement to the world,” Son Soubert said.
Whether the item is returned often depends on cooperation from the country where it is located. And not all countries are interested in returning items or slowing the illegal antiquities trade.
Cambodia’s porous border with Thailand allows smugglers easy passage. And though Thailand is not a member of Unesco, this week it did agree to negotiations with Cambodia to return 43 artifacts in its possession, Hab Touch said.
Though officials agree the larger problems are smuggling and loose import laws, online sales grease the wheels of the trade in stolen antiquities, they say.
For now, it’s up to potential buyers to do the right thing when it comes to Cambodia’s lost and stolen heritage, Hab Touch said.
“We will also rely on the individual out there buying these artifacts to do what’s right,” he said.