Seven stolen antiquities returned to Cambodia by the United States were handed over in a ceremony on 18th July after being found on the no-questions-asked market there. They included an engraved plinth from the 11th Century weighing nearly 500 pounds and a sandstone carving of a head from the 12th Century (I discussed these pieces here earlier).
The objects had been looted from the Angkor complex in Siem Reap and had arrived in the US after being smuggled through Thailand. Officials of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security recovered the objects in 2008 as part of an operation imaginitively codenamed "Operation Antiquity", a special program to investigate cultural antiquities trafficking from Southeast Asia to the United States. In 2003 the United States and Cambodia had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that protects Cambodian artefacts and prevents the import of illegally exported items into the United States. In 2008, the MOU was renewed and expanded to include artefacts from the Bronze Age to the Khmer era. All of the recent batch of returned items are from the Angkor period.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns symbolically handed over the pieces to Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Mem San An at a ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on Sunday, July 18, 2010.
The State Department news releases concentrate on the handing-back ceremony and offer no details whatsoever of in whose hands the items were found in the US or what their intended destination was, nor whether the people who had supplied them were investigated.
Most likely it will never be known from which parts of the monumental complex these "collectable bits" had been taken, Cambodia's past is being shattered by unscrupulous looters who have contacts willing to buy them and smuggle them out to the no-questions-asked foreign markets which provide the financial motor. Instead of smilingly handing back a few bits and bobs American dealers did not manage to sell, maybe the US should be doing something to clean up the no-questions-asked market which allows others like it to pass through without a hitch. Merely handing back a few loose bits for a photo opportunity and chatter away about "international cooperation" is not preventing the ongoing destruction of the archaeological record to fill the needs of one of the world's largest no-questions-asked markets for dug-up and knocked-off "antiquities" in the United States of America.
Photo: Uncle Sam graciously hands out largesse to the little people of the Third World. At a ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on Sunday, July 18, 2010, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns hands over a sandstone carving to Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Mem San An [Photo: US State Department].