The Looting of Cambodian Antiquities

The looting of ancient Cambodian antiquities from Prasat Chen, the 10th century the Khmer capital at Koh Ker ARCHES: At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series


Additional resources:

“Sotheby’s Accused of Deceit in Sale of Khmer Statue” (The New York Times, November 13, 2012)

Rebuilding Koh Ker: A 3D Reconstruction Restores Context to a Looted Khmer Temple (from Chasing Aphrodite)

Cambodia Vs. Sotheby’s In A Battle Over Antiquities (from NPR)

Return of six of the nine statues looted from Cambodia (UNESCO)

Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk (ICOM)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] I’m sitting with Tess Davis, the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition. We want to talk about looting in Cambodia.

Terressa Davis: [0:13] The illicit antiquities trade affects few countries more than the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia, which was the heart of the ancient Khmer empire, one of the most powerful forces in Southeast Asia.

[0:24] During the Angkorian period, which was from the 9th to the 15th century, this kingdom extended far beyond Cambodia’s current boundaries, reaching into what is now Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and even Burma.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] They’re probably best known for the extraordinarily elaborate stone temples and cities that were built. Most famously Angkor Wat.

Terressa: [0:45] The Khmer built their capital at Angkor and filled it with great temples, reservoirs, stone roadways, and bridges, and the city had a population in the millions. Its crowning achievement, the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat, rivals the pyramids in scale. It’s an amazing site.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] We want to rewind a little bit and go back in history before Angkor Wat was built and look at a town in what is now northern Cambodia, what was briefly the capital of Khmer.

Terressa: [1:15] The site Koh Ker was the 10th-century capital of the Khmer Empire. Today, while Angkor Wat is welcoming throngs of tourists, Koh Ker is still off the beaten path.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] We know from early French colonial reports from the 19th and early 20th century [that] because it was so remote, it was largely untouched.

Terressa: [1:32] Well, the site is deep in the Cambodian jungle, and it was only rediscovered by the outside world in the 1870s. The site was so pristine that some of these early French explorers described it as a outdoor museum given how many statues survived intact.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] Fast-forward to the 1970s.

Terressa: [1:52] Cambodian art started to flood the Western market in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, corresponding with the Killing Fields, with the genocide, with the civil war, with the foreign occupation by Vietnam, and were purchased by leading auction houses, museums, and collectors, no questions asked.

[2:13] In the case of the pieces from Koh Ker, you have these monumental works, among the most important pieces in the Khmer canon of art, appearing missing their feet, broken in pieces, from a war zone. Yet they ended up in major collections.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] The reason that missing feet are important is that the feet are still attached to the pedestals at this site.

Terressa: [2:35] In 2007, conservator Simon Warrack was visiting the site of Koh Ker, and his eye was caught by these two impressive pedestals with a pair of feet, the rest of the body cut off at the ankles. Warrack uncovered what seemed to be a fit, on display at the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, having been acquired in 1976.

[2:56] Then two years later, French archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau confirmed Warrack’s research and then made an additional breakthrough that the missing companion to the Norton Simon piece, which matched the other fragmented pedestal at Koh Ker, was on the opposite coast of the United States.

[0:00] Not only that, it was gracing the cover of Sotheby’s “Asia Week” catalog, the featured lot of the event, if not the year.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] Now, Sotheby’s should have known better. They had been involved in numerous repatriation claims.

Terressa: [3:31] In fact, we know from court records that Sotheby’s was on notice that the statue was stolen property. The very expert they hired to appraise the piece warned them that it was “definitely stolen” and that they should “offer” it back to the National Museum of Cambodia as a gesture of goodwill and to save everyone some embarrassment.

[3:45] Instead of heeding her advice, Sotheby’s put it on the cover of one of their most prominent catalogs, with an estimated ticket price of around 2 to 3 million dollars.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] They simply call the sculpture “athlete.” But because we can match the sculpture to the feet and the pedestal, we actually have an identification.

Terressa: [4:03] That’s one of the tragedies of looting. When cultural objects are removed from their place of origin, they lose so much of their meaning.

[4:10] For example, there was no way of identifying this statue or its mate at the Norton Simon Museum, but once matched to their pedestals, it became clear that they were not warriors as they had been described, but they were the warriors Bhima and Duryodhana, engaged in this fight to the death from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata.

Dr. Zucker: [4:27] The sculptures themselves are beautiful and unusual. Most Khmer sculpture is relief sculpture. These are rarities because these are sculptures in the round. They’re also enormous, and there’s a sense of weight and muscularity, but still a fluidity that is one of the stunning characteristics of Khmer art.

Terressa: [4:45] Originally, these two figures would have been surrounded by other figures watching them in this three-dimensional tableau.

Dr. Zucker: [4:57] But when they’re looted and they show up isolated at an auction house or in a museum display, we lose the interaction between the figures. We lose their meaning. But not everybody behaved badly.

Terressa: [5:03] The discovery of the statue at Sotheby’s set off a chain reaction, resulting in a major story by the New York Times and the federal lawsuit. This uncovered a number of statues that had all been looted around the same time, likely by the same people, from the same temple at Koh Ker, and yet nonetheless made their way into prominent American collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[5:27] Now, to the Met’s credit, as soon as Cambodia presented them with evidence that these statues were stolen, the Met stood up and did the right thing, and have since built a very strong relationship with the royal government of Cambodia that has resulted in loans back and forth.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] So although the Met lost this important object, it is now the beneficiary of perhaps even more important ongoing loans. One of the real remaining problems is that there is undoubtedly a tremendous amount of important Cambodian art in private collections.

Terressa: [5:57] By far the bulk of antiquities disappear into this black market, ending up in private collections around the world. Maybe one day they’ll resurface, maybe they won’t. We’re still seeing looted art from World War II that were stolen from Jewish families throughout Europe, just resurfacing today.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] You have these gorgeous architectural monuments that are now defaced.

Terressa: [6:19] Due to the trade in art and antiquities, we’ve lost countless knowledge about these sites but the losses go beyond that. A site like Koh Ker, if its statuary were intact, it would be a major tourist draw. That’s having economic consequences for Cambodia to this day.

[6:35] There’s clear evidence that the looting and trafficking of blood antiquities in Cambodia helped to prolong the war by continuing to finance hostilities. Unfortunately, because of this demand for looted Cambodian art, it’s too dangerous to return these statues to their original temples. They are going to be kept in the National Museum for safekeeping and, as I think, also an important symbol of Cambodia’s recovery after the war.

[7:02] This is not just about art. Like these statues, so many Cambodian families were broken up by the war. You have people starting to return today, and it’s an important part of this recovery to bring home these statues where they belong, so Cambodian children can go and see these statues today and learn about their great past and hopefully to inspire their equally great future.

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Cite this page as: Tess Davis and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Looting of Cambodian Antiquities," in Smarthistory, October 27, 2017, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/looting-cambodia-2/.