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.