Cambodia wants its stolen artefacts back; What is the hold-up?

At the height of the Khmer empire in the 12th century, the temple city of Preah Khan was second only to Angkor in its splendour. The vast religious/military/industrial complex covered more than 20 square kilometres, larger than London at the time, and reportedly contained some of the finest examples of Khmer art ever produced. It was located about 100 kilometres to the east of Angkor and was linked to the capital by a broad highway lined with ornately carved stone bridges, temples, and rest houses for the weary traveller.

When I visited Preah Khan in January 2005, the city was gone and the temple was a desolate shell, stripped of nearly all its statues, carvings and reliefs. The ancient highway from Angkor was reduced in places to a sandy track snaking through landmine laden jungle. This was no idealised Tomb Raider temple hidden away down a secret passageway, it was all out in the open, a mass of crumbling towers, broken down walls, and scattered blocks of stone.

The remains of the temple at Preah Khan in 2005. Author photo.

Many of the best known Angkorean temples, those surrounding the tourist centre of Siem Reap, have been relatively well preserved and better protected from looters, but the more remote sites such as Preah Khan, and the tenth century capital of Koh Ker to the north, were easy pickings, first for French colonial adventurers in the 19th century and latterly international antiquities traffickers.

In recent decades, looted artefacts have been routinely shipped across the Thai border to dealers in Bangkok, and regional centres across Southeast Asia, and then on to galleries and private collections around the world. The antiquities dealers operated in plain sight and seemed unconcerned with the repercussions of their trade (which included funding the Khmer Rouge) until a few years ago when the Hun Sen government in Phnom Penh began asking questions, and international galleries started to make more rigorous checks on their acquisitions.

One collection of Khmer art that is now under intense scrutiny is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The New York Times reports that several of the artefacts on display in Gallery 249 came directly from Douglas Latchford, a prominent British-Thai businessman and indicted antiquities trafficker who was based in Bangkok. Moreover, it is suspected that many other items in the gallery were also trafficked by Latchford – now deceased – through a network of intermediaries.

The Cambodian government has demanded the return of the looted items but the Met has incredulously shifted the burden of proof back onto Phnom Penh. “We have repeatedly requested any evidence demonstrating works were stolen from Cambodia,” the Met said in a statement to the New York Times.

The Met itself has not really explained how the artefacts in its possession could possibly have a legitimate owner if they were in fact taken from an 800-year-old Khmer temple. Indeed, many collectors of Khmer art have not denied the looting and even defended it on the grounds that they were saving the artefacts for posterity or that the looting provided money and employment for poverty stricken Cambodian farmers.

Of course, Gallery 249 is just the tip of the iceberg. Given the longevity of the Khmer empire, and the obsession of its rulers with temple building, there must be tens of thousands of artefacts out there in private collections or displayed (perhaps unknowingly) in the houses of the super-rich. One such collection is reportedly in the US$42 million San Francisco home of author Sloan Lindemann Barnett, which was featured in the January 2021 edition of Architectural Digest. The Washington Post reports that the Cambodian government has identified at least two of the sculptures displayed in the mansion (but suspiciously airbrushed out of the Architectural Digest photographs), and says moreover that they were part of a much larger collection acquired by Lindemann Barnett’s parents.

One has to ask, why don’t private collectors simply give the artefacts back when they are informed of their suspect provenance. It is not like they can’t afford to part with them. Perhaps they fear some kind of legal liability if they admit that they were stolen or perhaps they have concerns about returning items to a corrupt and authoritarian regime in Phnom Penh that routinely tramples on the rights of its citizens. I doubt the latter. It is more likely that the rich and entitled simply feel they don’t have to respond to impertinent questions about the origin of their property.

A relatively well-preserved section of the highway between Angkor and Preah Khan. Author photo.

It is also important to ask what will the Cambodian government do with the artefacts once they are returned. According to the Cambodian ambassador to the United States, Keo Chhea, about 30 artefacts looted from Koh Ker and later found in American collections will be returned this year and displayed in the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

The museum already has an extensive collection of bronze and stone works, textiles and paintings, including some well-known pieces from Preah Khan. However, the museum building itself is problematic. Built in 1917 by the French colonial regime, the Khmer style structure was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh in the 1970s, and became home to millions of bats and other vermin. It has been cleaned up and substantially renovated since then but it is still far from the ideal sanctuary for priceless art. By modern standards, the exhibition floor space is extremely limited, and the galleries surround an open garden courtyard, subject to extreme heat and humidity in the wet season.

Will the government build a new state of the art facility for its reacquired national treasure or will the returned artefacts just be stored in a basement somewhere? I am sure many scholars in Cambodia care deeply about the country’s antiquities and want them prominently displayed in a fitting setting. However, I suspect the Hun Sen regime just sees the reacquisition of these artefacts as a way to boost its domestic political legitimacy and is not really bothered about what happens to them when they do return home.

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