Tuesday 17 September 2013

"Academics and Temple-Huggers" Will Probably Get Their Way: Scandal About to Erupt

"A major scandal looks to be on the cards, on a par with the Sevso treasure affair (in 1990, Sotheby’s had to withdraw from the sale of a treasure trove of Roman-era silver owned by the Marquess of Northampton) or the Medici affair, which resulted in spectacular restitutions to Italy and Greece" concludes Vincent Noce ('The smuggling scandal that’s ready to erupt' Art Newspaper Issue 249, September 2013 - Published online: 16 September 2013). This article summarises a lot of the discussion, some of it interestingly enough on the blogosphere, on the background to the Koh Ker temple statuary case.

Anne Lemaistre, the Unesco representative in Cambodia, who played a discreet advisory role in the Met case, describes how Koh Ker has been ravaged and stripped of its finest statuary. “Cambodia has witnessed unprecedented looting of its archaeological sites,” she says. “It began in the 1960s and has never stopped.” Convoys of trucks, some with a military escort, transported art treasures to Thailand, where they were sold to wealthy Westerners. “We’ve found photographs of looters posing next to bas-reliefs to demonstrate their size,” Lemaistre says. “If dealers placed an order, they would go back and hack more sculptures off the walls.” [...] “Having pillaged the sculptures, looters have begun stripping off architectural features,” Lemaistre says. “Stone inscriptions are broken up to be sold as individual works of art, making it impossible for scholars to study them. In 2011, Unesco sent a team to Preah Khan in Kompong Svay—a very large, remote temple complex. What we saw was enough to make anyone weep. Temples had been brutally dismantled with saws and chisels. There had been unsuccessful attempts; partially smashed heads. This has taken place in the early 21st century, up to 2006. And if that weren’t enough, they’d blown up whole sections with dynamite to get the bas-reliefs off. In some places, the entire temple has been reduced to dust.” The first thing the looters do is decapitate the statues, as heads are greatly prized by collectors. There is a story involving collector Douglas Latchford,
He and other collectors like him were rescuers, he said: as a believer in reincarnation, he told Mashberg that two Buddhist priests had told him that “in a previous life I had been Khmer, and that what I collect had once belonged to me”. 
Then a mention of the research of Eric Bourdonneau (who "was able to determine that 15 sculptures now owned by various museums and private collections originally formed two scenes at each of the temple’s gateways, to the east and to the west"), and then the  Belgian woman, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who bought one of them. The article then goes through the saga of the attempted seizzure of this statue and the involvement of Sotheby's. On the way there is mention of  Emma Bunker and a whole lot of name-dropping Sotheby's chitchat. Well worth a read. 

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