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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Artefact protection boot camp

Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomes the return of an ancient Koh Ker statue during the opening session of the 37th World Heritage Committee
Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomes the return of an ancient Koh Ker statue during the opening session of the 37th World Heritage Committee at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh in June. HENG CHIVOAN

Artefact protection boot camp

Seeking to further stanch the illegal flow of plundered statues and plaques torn from ancient temples to the world’s black market, officials from Cambodia and the US gathered yesterday for the launch of a three-day cultural property crimes workshop.

“We want to prevent our heritage from being smuggled out of the country,” said Ratanak Kry, professor at the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions and one of the event organisers.

“Before, our prosecutors and judges had no specific training in this area.”

The workshop follows last month’s renewal of a decade-old Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries to protect the Kingdom’s artefacts from being exported to the US.

“Khmer artefacts are some of the most desirable in the world. Everybody loves Khmer culture, and so there is great market demand for these goods,” Hab Touch, director general of heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, said.

The US is one of the biggest destinations in the $6 billion- to $8 billion-a-year artefacts black market – estimated by the US Department of Homeland Security to be the third-most profitable global criminal trade after narcotics and human trafficking.

“The market is the driver of this crime; without the market, there is no purchaser, there is no trade,” Dr. Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, art theft program manager for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said.

The timely workshop comes in the midst of Cambodia’s ongoing, US-backed legal battle over a $3 million 10th-century sandstone statue from Preah Vihear’s Koh Ker temple.

In Sotheby’s vs Cambodia, the US Attorneys’ Office is assisting the Kingdom’s attempt to reclaim cultural property from the New York auction house.

“The statue was sold by Sotheby’s in 2011. When we saw it, we filed a lawsuit,” Touch said. “One day, we will get this statue back.”

The Sotheby’s sandstone warrior lawsuit follows a slew of successfully repatriated cultural artefacts, including two 10th-century statues returned by the Metropolitan Museum of New York in June and, most infamously, the 1994 return of a Brahma statue head after the owner realised it was a smuggled antiquity when he read One Hundred Missing Objects: Looting in Angkor.

By the end of this year, the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO intend to publish a second book, Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk, to raise public awareness and ideally generate similar restorations.

“These artefacts are an important part of our culture. Our people want to know our history, and how can they know it if all of these pieces of our heritage are outside our country?” Touch said.

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