Saturday, 3 September 2011

Taking Home a Piece of Angkor Wat

Damien Huffer (here and a well-argued response on his own blog here) draws attention to a text called "Taking Home a Piece of Angkor Wat" which exposes a couple of issues connected with the trade in dug-up and knocked-off bits of "ancient art". The text is by some guy from Minnesota using the name of thinkCHUA who describes himself as:
an explorer seeking to understand the world's places and people. Currently on a multi-year expedition across Asia and Oceania with my wife, LOCAVORista, we are exploring the places to go, things to do, and uncovering business opportunities.
The object, a chunk of carved stone apparently from the facade of the Bayon Temple in Cambodia, is undeniably beautiful and the article's authors were sorely tempted, and we see the same weasly "maybe I'm not doing anything wrong after all" reasoning we see among the buyers of dug-up antiquities applied to their individual purchases:
Due to the difficulties in proving authenticity, the galleries were confident that US Customs would not be an issue. They would provide two sets of paperwork, one with certifications of the piece’s heritage, a second that would travel with it for US Customs. The traveling papers would state that it was a reproduction created in the last 50 years, therefore legal for importation without further scrutiny. We had been assured by many dealers that they had never had problems with US Customs doing this.
Then there is the:
"safer in my living room than a foreign museum storeroom" argument, the
"the beauty of man’s creation is best shared; it is this sharing that builds empathy, interest and relations" argument. ["Sharing" (taking) looted art (by keeping it in a living room) apparently stops human rights abuses or something].
The colonialist White Man's Burden argument:
"the wealthy nations are uniquely qualified to maintain paintings, artifacts and documents", ["it is either in a living room or suffering the fate of the Buddhas of Baniyan in Afghanistan"].
Upon arriving, excited and scared, to purchase our piece of the Angkor Kingdom we received bad news. The price we had been quoted was incorrect by one zero. Previously it was very expensive, but attainable, but now it was just too expensive. The lessons we learned in the process though, were worth it, without finding a piece we loved, doing the research, debating among ourselves, and deciding, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to think through the right, wrong and grey area of being a tomb raider.
Raider, indeed. In other words a thief.


Mo said...

"If they don’t have it, describe what you want and they will find it"

I bet there is someone in a workshop knocking them out for the tourists.

Wrong on every level of course but what are the chances of this being a genuine artifact?

Damien Huffer said...

yeah, unsurprising but appalling at the same time, isn't it? I shall be leaving one or several comments on the Living If site shortly... If they want to begin a dialog, then let's get on with it.

Paul Barford said...

Morgan, I think it depends when it is easier to go out with a crowbar or metal detector and spade and find saleable bits or whether its easier to make them and 'distress' them to make them look old. In this case, I think the photo shows an authentic knocked-off piece of a monument.

Mo said...

Your a better judge of the authenticity than me but I bet there are plenty of copies.

The bit about adding a nought onto the price sounds very odd.

It sounds like the archeaological equivalent of a boiler room scam.

If these people are prepared to buy genuine artifacts and are sold copies you cannot feel much sympathy.

Paul Barford said...

me? Sympathy?

Well, actually a little bit I do, because it seems to me that their moral dilemma was caused by a lack of outreach from the people that should be telling people just why what they were apparently contemplating is damaging, and why the arguments they attempted to apply were false ones.

How many British holiday makers get any sort of active outreach from everybody's favourite "portable antiquities - multi-million pound outreach organization" about this? They spend all of their publicity budget making programmes and writing articles about how "OK" collecting is, and they are even making an ITV programme about "Treasure Hunting". Yet international conventions require Britain and the US to do everything they can to propagate a message about the illicit use of cultural property which simply is not being done. Why not? How difficult can it be with the resources these people have?

Mo said...

Your right the PAS should be advising people.

These people had decided to buy this item irrespective of the fact that it was looted (or a fake). It would have no provenance whatsover so it would be worthless in a market which requires a provenance.

Why don't people buy souvenirs that support the local economy when they go abroad.

Damien Huffer said...

You're both right: Foreign and local archaeologists actively working in pretty much any country with an active antiquities trade like Cambodia need to do much more re on the ground outreach. Diverse, multi-media approaches targeting both consumers and "providers" (whether deliberate looting 'gangs' or families/individuals selling field finds unaware of what they have) are what's needed... It's a real shame that getting funding for such projects seems to be rather difficult...

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