Thursday, 17 January 2013

Looting Cambodia


The Chasing Aphrodite blog draws attention to the article ('The Plunder of Angkor', April 2005) by Dougald O'Reilly on the 'North by North East' (travel firm) blog. It frames an appeal to tourists:
it is important for visitors to Southeast Asia to understand that the pieces they see for sale are either stolen or counterfeit. The latter is more likely unless buyers are recognized as serious collectors. Smaller items, such as beads, from archaeological sites are probably genuine and represent the destruction of our only chance to understand the rise of the state in Southeast Asia. The casual purchase of a string of beads, or a pot, results in further looting. In Cambodia it is illegal to purchase, sell or traffic antiquities and is punishable by imprisonment. If you think that you are being sold an antiquity, please do not buy it. You came to Southeast Asia to visit the splendors of the ancient past, please leave something for the next visitor to marvel at [my emphasis].
The collector across the sea who buys this looted stuff is even less likely to give a thought for where it comes from. I would also ask whjat is the difference between buying stuff taken from archaeological sites in Cambodia and ones in the united kingdom. Artefact hunting is artefact hunting. Back in Cambodia though, O'Reilly pointed out that already eight years ago most of Cambodia's temples were devoid of statuary as the sculptures which had not been looted had been removed from their original locations to protect them from theft.
Cambodia's cultural heritage has long been a target of thieves but the losses increased in the last few decades as the international art market came to appreciate the beauty of Cambodia's past. During the 1990's art dealers would show prospective clients photographs of Angkor's temples and steal to order, hacking away lintels or carving apsara dancers from walls. 
He quoted the case of Prasat Preah Khan of Kompong Svay where in 2003, armed men guarded a party of sculpture looters who 'worked' through the night to steal almost every carved figure from the walls.
Today, visitors stumble over piles of new rubble to view the gaping wounds where once, exquisite carvings were.
 The man on the ground was unequivocal in assigning the blame for this to the no-questions-asked antiquities trade:
The rapacious destruction of Cambodia's heritage is not restricted to monumental sites alone. Looters are also destroying many prehistoric sites. One such site is Phum Snay in Cambodia's northwest. Antiquities dealers encouraged the villagers at Snay to loot the cemetery which dates to the Iron Age (c. AD 300-600). Countless burials were unearthed and the bones strewn across the fields. The looters were searching for glass beads, pottery, and bronze and iron implements. This incredible site, which contained the remains of warriors, is crucial to the understanding of the development of Angkor but now the opportunity is lost.  The trade in antiquities is fuelled by demand. Upscale shops in Bangkok's River City or in Singapore are the main outlet for stolen antiquities. While these shops may have a veil of respectability they are highly unscrupulous. Many of the pieces on display are reproductions sold to unsuspecting buyers as authentic artifacts. Working in collusion with shipping companies these dealers reap huge profits from the theft of priceless pieces of art from an impoverished developing nation. Cambodia must retain its cultural heritage.
The no-questions asked antiquities trade, eager to accept any freshly-surfaced artefacts with not a thought for distinguishing that which is freshly looted and freshly smuggled from any other decontextualised artefact floating round the market, is indeed without scruples. This is why we need measures to make these people - dealers and collectors - clean up their act, including import restrictions on improperly exported items.

Vignette: no metal detector, but what's the difference really? 

8 comments:

Damien Huffer said...

As have I, in the context of sharing my contribution to the public campaign of the Cambodia-US MoU renewal effort.

Sarah K said...

I'm wondering what kinds of restrictions you're thinking of; specifically how you would define what had been looted, how you would prove such an act, and how you would enforce it?

Paul Barford said...

Sarah (if that is your real name), what I said was

"This is why we need measures to make these people - dealers and collectors - clean up their act, including import restrictions on improperly exported items."

So you will see that the restrictions are import ones. It should be clear that this post was made in the context of the ongoing discussions about the extension of the US-Cambodia cult. prop. MOU.

http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2013/01/cambodia-mou-meeting.html

But then the same goes for the UK or any other market.

As for the "how d'ya know it was looted" question, personally I think you are approaching the topic from the wrong end. What I mean by "cleaning up their act" is that I want those who gaily buy this stuff to first ascertain how they can demonstrate that what they want to get their hands on is NOT-Looted.

Do you collect or deal in SE Asian art Sarah?

David Ian said...

Mr. Huffer, where can I find this public campaign and contribution you refer to? Who's conducting it? Thanks for the info...

Paul Barford said...

http://itsurfaceddownunder.blogspot.com/2013/01/my-note-to-cpac.html

David Ian said...

Thanks Paul. I still see no campaign, just an appeal for people to help, er, create one perhaps? And again, whose campaign?

Paul Barford said...

Well, if the AIA was doing what it was supposed to do, they'd have one. Have they goty thjeir act together yet? SAFE is trying to get people interested, but that could be an uphill battle.

Really its all a bit ridiculous, either the US is interested in setting a lead in protecting the archaeological heritage from pillaging and smuggling, or it is not. If it is, then why have a outdated system reliant on temporary and country-specific agreements which keep expiring? The CCPIA ia a disgusting half-hearted cop-out.

So Ian, instead of writing comments here, why not send a comment to the CPAC? I'll be doiung mine in a few days (got a UNESCO translation to get out of the way first), so far there is just ONE. Scandal.

David Ian said...

I'd gladly write a comment if I knew the first thing about Cambodia or its cultural heritage. You're right, those who work there and know about it ought to show they care (if they do) by writing, but honestly this whole process seems so closed I don't see how they really mean by "public" comment. Who on earth knows what all this mean and if they actually exist. What I know I kind of gathered from the SAFE web site although there's nothing about Cambodia per se. But seriously if it took a letter from someone like me, the entire would just become thing meaningless. There I wrote another comment here, I hope you don't mind, and understand that no one does anything probably because no one really knows anything about this, except for a very select few...

 
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