Cambodia wants to inspect a stash of antiquities hoarded by a sacked Thai government official linked to a crime syndicate after hearing the treasure trove may include dozens of ancient Khmer sculptures.
The Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok wrote a letter nearly two weeks ago to Thai government officials requesting access to the recently seized artefacts, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong.
The embassy has not yet received a reply.
“The first thing we need to do is see and examine the objects,” Kuong said.
The loot was reportedly recovered as part of an investigation into former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan’s alleged extortion racket, Thai military-run media said.
Bribery and intimidation, money laundering and lese majeste are a small handful of charges that have been levelled against the alleged racketeers.
In addition to the antiquities, rare animal hides, ivory tusks, stacks of cash and luxury timber were discovered amid the possessions secretly held by the purported network, which allegedly counts some of Thailand’s wealthiest billionaires and elite policemen among its number.
Few of the tens of thousands of antiquities seized from the network’s secret stash houses have so far been confirmed to be authentic.
However, of the inspected and genuine antiquities, many are thought to be Cambodian sculptures, reliefs and carvings from ancient temple sites, according to the Thai Culture Ministry.
“The results of initial examinations show at least 10 Khmer artefacts are genuine,” Bovornvet Rungrujee, director general of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department, said at a press conference earlier this month.
The Khmer relics, including Buddha statues, works presumed to be from Phnom Da, and figurines of Hindu deities, may date as far back as 1,400 years ago to the seventh century, the Fine Arts Department said.
In order to facilitate in the repatriation of any stolen objects, the department said it would upload images of the recovered objects to its website. However, the pictures were not displayed as of yesterday.
The Thai Ministry of Culture declined to provide comment yesterday, as approval was needed “before we can give information to any foreigners or the news”.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kuong said that he could not say what Cambodia might do with the artefacts if they are repatriated, or whether he believed they could be looted goods.
Archaeology experts, however, have found few legal sources for Cambodian antiquities, which have largely been hacked from temples and illicitly traded as part of transnational crime networks before eventually ending up with private collectors.
“Every antiquity on the market, with very, very rare exception, has been stolen from an archaeological site,” said Tess Davis, an antiquities lawyer and researcher at the University of Glasgow.
Cambodia has recently seen major successes in reclaiming artworks smuggled abroad, however. Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art voluntarily agreed to return two “kneeling attendant” sandstone sculptures to Cambodia.
The historic gesture led to a landslide of unprecedented repatriations, including from auction house Christie’s and from the Norton Simon Museum in California.
After an embittered legal battle, Sotheby’s auction house also relinquished an 11th Century warrior statue belonging to the same ensemble as the other returns.
All of the repatriated works are currently on temporary display at Phnom Penh’s National Museum, with the hope that one day they will be restored to their original location in the remote jungle temple Prasat Chen, north of the Angkor complex.
The director of the National Museum said he hopes researchers can establish origins of the trove of works seized in Thailand so the recovered artefacts can soon also find their way home.
“If they are Khmer artefacts, we have to claim our heritage,” said Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum. “But we cannot say for certain that they are from Cambodia or from Khmer temples in Thailand without more research.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THE BANGKOK POST