Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Legitimate thieves

A statue from Koh Ker currently under the spotlight at Sotheby's
The looting of Cambodia's cultural heritage has been going on far too long. Items offered up at auction at Sotheby's and elsewhere with an 'acquired legally' catalog entry mean jack shit. These items have been spirited away/stolen from Cambodia, their rightful home. In my view, it's simple, they should be returned. There's a case in point, reported in the New York Times yesterday, which highlights this trade in Khmer sculpture that has been taking place for far too long already. The five foot statue in question was stolen from the Koh Ker complex, where I was only last week, in the 1970s and yet Sotheby's believed it was legit. Crap, and they know it. Unfortunately, the onus is on Cambodia to prove that these items have been removed illegally, even though it's as plain as the nose on your face, that they have. Or else the current owners get to keep them, and sell them on if they wish. In some cases, a deal is done, and money is exchanged, where Cambodia has to buy back its own heritage. That has got to be wrong. However, hold your horses, there may be a knight in shining armour on the horizon. This is what the New York Times has to say on the subject:

Yet another wrinkle is expected on Wednesday when lawyers working with Cambodia plan to announce the rediscovery of a 1925 French colonial law declaring all antiquities from Cambodia’s multitude of temples to be “part of the national domain” and “the exclusive property of the state.” The statement goes on to say that this law remained in force after Cambodian independence, which came in 1953. Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Cambodia scholar who dug out the law, said it had been analyzed by three French-speaking lawyers conversant in cultural heritage litigation and by Ms. LeMaistre (Unesco rep in Phnom Penh). All four say it “nationalizes ownership of Cambodian cultural artifacts.” If international legal authorities and American civil courts agree, the law could establish 1925, rather than 1993, as the dividing point after which Cambodian artifacts taken without government permits can be treated as stolen property. Cambodia would still have to prove that the statue was looted after 1925, “a high burden but not an impossible one,” according to Mr. Bogdanos, who agrees the 1925 law “appears to be valid."

Now wouldn't that be a poke in the eye for the establishment. Cambodia could, in theory, rightfully claim back all the pieces languishing in museums around the world, if they could prove they were stolen after 1925. Wouldn't help them get back all the Khmer art on show at the Guimet Museum in Paris though, removed by French explorers who pillaged the temples of Cambodia and shipped the best pieces back to their own country. It rankles with me every time I think about it.

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