LOOTED CAMBODIAN TREASURES COME HOME
New York Times News ServiceCHICAGO TRIBUNE
January 5, 1997 Phnom Penh
In 1924, French writer Andre Malraux was arrested and imprisoned when he removed nearly a ton of stone carvings and ornaments from a temple in the remote Cambodian jungle and trundled them away in oxcarts.
In 1980, starving refugees fleeing the terrors of the Khmer Rouge arrived at the border with Thailand lugging stone heads lopped from temple statues and ornate silverwork looted from museums.
Today the looting continues, from hundreds of temples and archaeological sites scattered through the jungles of this often-lawless country, sometimes organized by smuggling syndicates and abetted by antique dealers in Thailand and elsewhere.
Entire temple walls covered with bas-relief are hacked into chunks and trucked away by thieves. Villagers sell ancient pottery for pennies. Armed bands have attacked monks at remote temples to loot their treasures and have twice raided the conservation office at the temple complex of Angkor.
But the tide is slowly beginning to turn. With the Cambodian government beginning a campaign to seek the return of the country’s treasures, and with cooperation from curators and customs agents abroad, 1996 was a significant year for the recovery of artifacts.
Fifteen objects have come home, in three separate shipments from three continents, raising hopes that some of the more significant artifacts may be returned.
In July, the U.S. returned a small head of the god Shiva that had been seized by Customs in San Francisco. Cambodia is a largely Buddhist nation, but over the centuries its history and its art have seen successive overlays of Buddhist and Hindu influences. At some temples, statues of Buddha mingle with those of the Hindu deities, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
In September, the Thai government returned 13 large stone carvings, some up to 800 years old, that had been confiscated by Thai police from an antique shop in Bangkok in 1990. Thai officials said the return was a gesture of good will meant to combat that country’s image as a center of antique trafficking.
And in December, a British couple returned a stone Brahma head that they had bought at auction. Its Cambodian origin was confirmed by a list, published by UNESCO, of 100 artifacts that had disappeared from an inventory compiled in the 1960s.
In addition, Sebastien Cavalier, a UNESCO representative here, said he was expecting the return as early as next month of a 10th Century Angkorean head of Shiva that is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Six bronze pieces sent to the Guimet Museum in Paris for cleaning and safekeeping in the 1970s could also be returned in the coming months, he said.
Now with the launching in January of a major traveling exhibition of Khmer artifacts—to Paris, Washington, Tokyo and Osaka— accompanied by an updated catalog of some of Cambodia’s missing treasures, Cavalier said he hopes the returns will accelerate.
The exhibit will be on display in Paris from Jan. 31 to May 26, at the National Gallery in Washington from June 30 to Sept. 28, and in Japan from Oct. 28 to March 22, 1998.
But the pillage of artifacts continues at a far greater pace than the returns.
Government control remains tenuous in much of Cambodia and the Ministry of Culture has little money for the protection of antiquities. There is little check on armed groups and corrupt officials throughout the countryside, where hundreds of temples remain unused and unguarded or overgrown with jungle.
Truckloads of treasures regularly pass through military checkpoints into Thailand, art experts say. Heavy stone artifacts are towed in fishing nets to cargo ships off the southern coast. In Thailand, skilled artisans repair or copy damaged objects and certificates of authenticity are forged.
Most of Cambodia’s artistic patrimony remains uncatalogued, and Cavalier said there was no way to know the full extent of what had already been stolen over the last decades, or what remained scattered around the country.