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