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Bringing lost artefacts home

British collector Douglas Latchford, who received a medal in exchange for a 13th-century pendant during a June 12 National Museum ceremony, looks at the artefact he donated on display.
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Heritage experts are encouraging government officials to persist in the quest to retrieve Cambodia's scattered relics.

Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY

British collector Douglas Latchford, who received a medal in exchange for a 13th-century pendant during a June 12 National Museum ceremony, looks at the artefact he donated on display.

ON June 12, the same day Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva presented Prime Minister Hun Sen with seven ancient Khmer artefacts that had been lost to smugglers, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An was at the National Museum for a ceremony in which foreign donors handed over five separate artefacts, including an 8th-century linga and a 13th-century pendant.

The seven severed stone heads - among a group of 43 artefacts reportedly seized from smugglers in 1999 - were presented as a gesture of cooperation and thus carried more political weight.

But heritage experts said in recent interviews that the National Museum ceremony - involving the return of artefacts from private collections rather than a head of government - was perhaps more significant in the ongoing effort to retrieve as many lost Khmer antiquities as possible.

Because most lost artefacts are believed to be held in private collections, experts said it was necessary for the government to create incentives

for more private donors to give smuggled items back to Cambodia.

The number of artefacts taken during Cambodia's decades of civil war is "extremely difficult even to estimate", said UNESCO Country Director Teruo Jinnai.

"There are more than 3,000 major temples and monuments in Cambodia," he said.

"They must have been decorated with statues, steles, bas-reliefs and other artefacts when they were built."

Once removed from the Kingdom, they were distributed widely, said Chuch Phoeurn, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, who noted that the government had recently been informed of artefacts on display in museums in Thailand, Japan, Switzerland and France.

The fact that most of these artefacts were never registered in Cambodia, he said, has complicated efforts to retrieve them.

We know those antiquities were smuggled or stolen from cambodia.

"We know that those antiquities were smuggled or stolen from Cambodia, but we don't know the dates, and we can't ask for them back without original documents," Chuch Phoeurn said.

Creating incentives

In an attempt to encourage the return of such antiquities, the government began offering medals to private donors last year.

Hab Touch, director of the National Museum, said there are several medals on offer, including Sahak Metrei friendship medals and gold medals that are awarded on a scale designed to reflect the value of the artefact returned.

Hab Touch said seven pieces had been returned in exchange for medals - two in 1998, along with the five returned earlier this month.

Chuch Phoeurn said there were no plans to advertise the medal programme because officials believed awareness would spread naturally among antiquities collectors and dealers.

He said he hoped the programme would serve as an incentive for private collectors to return artefacts, despite the fact that they would receive no financial compensation.

Hab Touch said the government was not focusing on obtaining artefacts currently in the possession of private Cambodian collectors, though he said these people "very often" returned artefacts to the National Museum or provincial museums in exchange for certificates and, sometimes, "a small amount of money".

Beyond the medals program, Jinnai said the government had adopted or signed several legal instruments designed to facilitate the return of lost artefacts, including bilateral return agreements with Thailand and the US, a series of international conventions and the 1996 Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Cambodia.

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