Taking home a piece of Angkor is NOT OK

I’ve been debating with myself about commenting on this egregious blog post written by a couple considering buying a looted lintel in Bangkok and then illegally smuggling it back to the US.  Two colleagues, LTO Cambodia and It Surfaced Down Under have also chimed in, and I would also like to add my two cents on why this is absolutely, positively wrong. More after the jump.

The blog post is part of  a larger website written by a wealthy couple who decided proudly that they would rather quit their jobs and travel around the world than quit their jobs to join the Peace Corps.  I don’t begrudge anyone who has the financial means and opportunity to travel and blog about it.  Go for it and enjoy yourself. See other cultures, interact with people with different belief systems from your own, and try to learn something.  Come back and share what you’ve learned.  BUT DON’T BUY LOOTED ANTIQUITIES.

While in Bangkok they found an antiquities market and decided they were interested in buying a piece of “the Angkor Kingdom.”  This couple seems well-aware that what they are doing is wrong and the describe themselves as feeling like “movie villains.”  They found a lintel that was supposedly from the Baphuon temple and decided they wanted to have it, but they did feel a *little* guilty about the whole thing (after all, it would shave off months from their trip).

Their first concern was its authenticity, but they believed it was real.  Unfortunately, this makes it illegal to bring back to the US.  Fortunately, the dealer would provide them with two sets of papers, one real and one fake, to get it through customs.  I’m fairly astonished that they blogged about this so openly, but really it’s helpful for us all to know how this system works.

With this detail out of the way, they now needed to debate the moral issues. They seem to have an easy answer for all their moral questions, made easier by  inaccurate information. I’d like to address their points one by one.

1. Selling, importing and exporting antiquities is not illegal in Thailand, as long as they are not Thai antiquities.  That said, to virtually all developed countries ban the trade.  Though the Vatican, British and French have plundered many of the world’s treasures, such plundering is no longer in style.  Though they are no longer plundering, they are not returning their ill-gotten gains.  This may not be a bad thing, as one could argue they are safer in the museums of Europe and America than in their original countries.  I cannot argue with that, if safety and preservation is concerned, a museum in France, or even my living room, is probably superior to a Cambodian storeroom.

Yes, yes, colonial powers did plunder many antiquities.  And in the US owning slaves used to be legal.  The argument that “people used to do it” does not justify repeating the act.  We know better now, and we know not to plunder antiquities.  His statement that governments are not returning these antiquities is false. Many countries have been raising the case for the return of their artifacts and winning. Cambodia has been actively seeking the return of many of their artifacts (from the US, from Australia, from Thailand, and others).

The second part of his point is in regards to the safety of the artifacts. This issue is often brought up by collectors and in the case of Cambodia his assumptions are false.  Cambodia is often perceived as lawless and filled with anarchy and poverty. This is an ignorant viewpoint. I’m hardly the first person to deny that there are serious issues regarding poverty, human rights, and issues of social justice.  However, the country is stable, the economy is growing, and there are even KFCs. More to the point, Cambodia has several excellent national museums and is improving the infrastructure for its regional site museums. The National Museum in Phnom Penh has undergone major changes recently, especially under the former director His Excellency Hab Touch. (I’ve met Hab Touch and I can personally speak to his passion for Cambodia’s museums and cultural heritage). You can read a list of their recent accomplishments by the National Museum here.  Furthermore, the National Museum in Phnom Penh has world-class, internationally funded stone conservation and metal-conservation laboratories.  In this case, I’d argue that objects are a thousand times more safe and well-taken care of here than with a collector. [As an aside, it doesn't look like this couple bothered to check out any of the museums in Cambodia, otherwise they hopefully would have realized this].

2. There is also the argument that the beauty of man’s creation is best shared.  It is this sharing that builds empathy, interest and relations.  Few people from the Western world will ever step foot on Cambodia soil to stand in awe of  the Angkor Kingdom.  To those that will never make the trip Cambodia is one of “those” countries, those countries that have suffered political collapse…those distant and dangerous places.  Seeing the magnificence of a society builds a connection from afar.  Exposing a person to the art and culture of a place humanizes it.  The next time something like the Khmer Rouge comes to power, more people will fight against it.  Without seeing the beauty of a culture, it is easy to overlook what may be happening “over there”.

How is keeping a lintel in your living room spreading the joy and beauty of Cambodian culture?  Keeping a lintel in your living room is for your enjoyment, period. Furthermore, it is clear from their blog post that they have done little to educate themselves about the history of Cambodia beyond the Angkor period. People already knew about the beauty and culture of the Angkor period before the Khmer Rouge came to power and it didn’t stop it from happening. Newsflash: keeping a lintel in your living room isn’t going to stop genocide.  If anything you are financially aiding the nefarious organizations that contribute to lawlessness and human rights violations.  The antiquities trade in Afghanistan has been linked to terrorist organizations.  It’s not monks and school-teachers stealing and smuggling artifacts out of Cambodia and on to the black market. It is bad guys. Furthermore, there are more highlights to Cambodian culture than just Angkor. One lintel, and the ignorant people who buy it, are not qualified cultural ambassadors for Cambodia.

3. Lastly, have Cambodia and other countries with tumultuous histories relinquished their rights to their cultural artifacts?  It is in all of our best interest to preserve historical artifacts and doing this requires resources and knowledge that is lacking in much of the world.  To maintain paintings, artifacts and documents, I honestly believe the wealthy nations are uniquely qualified.  During and after the Khmer Rogue, Cambodia lost many artifacts, just like what is happening throughout the Islamic world today.  The only way to have saved the artifacts and history of Cambodia or some countries today is to remove them from bad situations.  If this requires private buyers support, so be it, it is either in a living room or suffering the fate of the Buddhas of Baniyan in Afghanistan.  Which is worse?

Ok, this is a rehash of the first argument above.  First, Cambodia is no longer war-torn and hasn’t been for a while.  Second, Cambodia is actually quite capable of looking after her own antiquities, thankyouverymuch.  It is deeply offensive to me that ignorant folks like those writing the blog post still act like this country is made up of children who can’t take care of themselves.  In addition to the excellent museum and conservation resources I discussed above there are also -Professionally trained Cambodian ceramics conservators and ceramic conservation labs.

-Cambodians who have been involved in surveying and mapping all the archaeological sites in Cambodia.

-A newly formed Khmer Archaeological Society (run by and for Cambodians)

-Cambodians with PhDs who teach at Cambodian universities and train Cambodian archaeology students!

-Cambodian archaeologists who collaborate with foreign archaeologists, attend international conferences, and write papers in journals.  In short, there are qualified Cambodian professionals who can, in fact, take care of their own cultural heritage. I know this because these people are my friends and colleagues.

Cambodia is hardly the backwater this couple seems to believe it is. Doesn’t it make more sense for wealthy countries to support the emerging talent in developing countries rather than stealing artifacts away (e.g. teach a man to fish…). The continued looting of archaeological sites and sale of antiquities makes it intensely difficult for archaeologists (both Cambodian and foreigners like myself) to do our jobs.  Let me make this clear: buying antiquities does not help us understand the past and it does not help preserve culture. It is purely a selfish act by people who want an object of beauty in their homes. It is stealing and it is illegal. If you want an object of beauty from Cambodia, support some of the excellent stone carvers making replicas.  Take a photograph on your travels, buy a book.  BUT DO NOT BUY ANTIQUITIES. Just don’t.

I couldn’t finish this without a shout-out to Heritage Watch International who have been monitoring and documenting the antiquities trade.

Also: previous posts on looting.

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7 responses to “Taking home a piece of Angkor is NOT OK

  1. Pingback: Buying a piece of Angkor | Correspondent's Corner

  2. Great post. I appreciate your thoughtful and well-written counterpoint to what I had written. I agree with much of what you have said, but I still stand by the point that many of these countries do not have the means or will to protect their cultural relics. These relics are often better protected by international groups and individuals.

    In a perfect world, the citizens of these countries would neither allow foreigners to loot cultural relics/sites nor do the looting themselves, unfortunately it happens. Once this has occurred it will end up in the hands of private collectors (including private universities and museums) via many paths. Sadly, the process of illegal removal is barbaric and disorganized causing culture and provenience to be lost. If there was a more organized process of cataloging and protection, that would obviously be my preference.

    The reality is that governments throughout the world fall and their priorities may not be to protect cultural relics/sites. There may even be outright disdain for the past, as the bullet holes in Koh Ker attest. Globally we need to protect the past, our shared history, which sometimes means that we need to put things in their safest place, which often is not in their country of origin. If this is in the hands of private collectors or institutions, so be it, when irreplaceable objects are in danger, it is better be safe than sorry. When systems are in place that can provide proper care and protection for these objects, they should be returned. You may be correct that Cambodia is now implementing such controls, but I would prefer a longer proving period.

  3. I appreciate that you commented. However, I still see a lot of ignorance about the antiquities market and in particular what is happening in Cambodia and I absolutely cannot get behind your statement that international organizations/individuals are “better protectors” of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. You fail to see that “international individuals” (i.e. I’m assuming you mean collector’s from Western or first world countries) actually cause and perpetuate much of the instability and lawlessness in these countries by collecting artifacts. How does this help create an environment where “systems are in place for proper care and protection?” If you really care about this issue donate to the Friends of Khmer Culture (for example)who funds training programs for conservationists. Help with the tuition costs for a Cambodian archaeology student. Donate money to build a regional site museum and include in that an endowment to pay for electricity, maintenance, and a guard for the museum in perpetuity (it’s not enough to just fund the cost of a building). Taking objects out of the country does not help develop infrastructure. If you ever do get a chance to join the Peace Corps I think you’ll find that long-term positive change happens when you teach people to do things for themselves instead of just coming in and doing it for them.
    I’d also like to clear up some additional misconceptions you brought up. As I mentioned in the post Cambodia has some great museums, archaeologists, and conservationists. These places are safe and proper facilities for the care, research, and storage of these objects. Objects are not being looted and stolen from these facilities. You also forget that there has been well over a hundred years of archaeological research in Cambodia, primarily by the French. There is excellent documentation of the major sculpture and architectural features from every site in Cambodia. There really aren’t any “undiscovered” Angkorian temple sites- they’ve all be found and recorded at some point in the past. For this reason, Cambodia is actually quite well aware of the major objects that have been looted. This has been recently compiled into a red list which you can read about and download here: http://www.devata.org/2010/02/red-list-protects-cambodian-antiquities/
    Looting was more prevalent during the Khmer Rouge period and even a bit into the 90s. One of the more famous examples is the major looting at Banteay Chhmar during the early 90s. This looting has been stopped, there are currently restoration projects at the site as well as home stay opportunities for tourists. It is also expected that Banteay Chhmar will be nominated by Cambodia as a World Heritage site at some point in the next few years. If this isn’t the definition of success, I don’t know what is.
    (More info: http://www.devata.org/2010/12/banteay-chhmar-working-to-save-another-angkor-wat/)
    Currently looting of Angkorian period sites is minimal compared to the destruction of Iron Age period burial sites, which are generally found by accident and then opportunistically looted by local villagers. (This is a serious issue, but a bit tangential to the current topic and better dealt with in a separate post). Recent looting events of sites like Prohear and Phum Snay were stopped by Cambodian authorities and now there have been successful collaborative archaeological research projects at these sites. This is excellent.

    If that lintel really was from the Baphuon (an intensely well-studied temple, especially by the French who took it apart block by block) there would be clear records of it, and it might even be on that red list I mentioned above (if so, it would’ve meant big trouble for you guys at customs). The right place for it would not be your house, but the Angkor Conservation office or the National Museum in Phnom Penh where it can be properly cared for, studied, researched, and put on display for the enjoyment of all. I’ve been told by experts that the cost for well provenanced objects is well above what you might have paid (several hundred thousand US dollars). Truthfully, these types of objects are not easily available to tourists walking into an antiquities shop off the street in Bangkok. But I don’t really care if it is real or not. It is your attitude which is incorrect and troubling. People need to know, whether they are buying a lintel, a pot, or some beads, that it is NOT OK. Not in any context. Buying looted objects perpetuates the destruction of archaeological sites. Justifying your purchase by saying that you an object has already been looted and it needs a “safe” home contributes to this vicious cycle. In the case of Cambodia, there are plenty of safe places for these objects to be returned. And if people in the US want to see some of these objects but won’t ever get to Cambodia, that is ok! Because the exceptionally well prepared Cambodian National Museum can help put on an international exhibit and you can go see it in your own backyard: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/gods_angkor/

  4. “Looting was more prevalent during the Khmer Rouge period and even a bit into the 90s.”
    I have never heard of any looting that went on in the 1975-79 period, I would have thought most was much later than that, in the 1990s. You probably know about André Malraux, who was arrested for looting temples in the 1920s and later went on to become the French Minister of Cultural Affairs!

  5. Hi Hank- That is a good comment/question. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that looting got started during the Khmer Rouge period,but only kept going afterward and especially in the 90s I think the global market for objects increased. I think it is hard to quantify when/where a temple or site was looted and when you ask local people they will often say it was the “Khmer Rouge” who looted a site. Depending on where you are in Cambodia, there were Khmer Rouge soldiers around well into the 90s. I suppose I was thinking more of the Iron Age period sites which have been looted more recently than the Angkorian sites. And of course, Malraux is the most (in)famous of all the looters!

  6. Pingback: Replica sculptures at Angkor | Alison in Cambodia

  7. Pingback: Buying a piece of Angkor - FCC

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