IN a desperate struggle to prevent Cambodia's cultural heritage from being looted
and sold abroad, UNESCO's recent announcement of the first stolen artifact returned
voluntarily was a small but significant shot in the arm for those seeking to preserve
what jewels remain of the Angkor empire.
"This is the first voluntary repatriation done without compensation," explained
Sebastien Cavalier, the UNESCO official in charge of the secretariat of the International
Coordinating Committee for the Safeguard and Development of the Historic Site of
The eleventh-century head removed from a statue of Brahma had been sold at an auction
at Sotheby's in London in October 1993.
"The collector who bought it recognized the artifact from a picture published
in a book Looting in Angkor: 100 objects stolen in Angkor," he said. The Ministry
of Culture was informed and the piece is expected back in the Kingdom before the
end of 1996. Today, the Royal Government is working on restituting eight artifacts
stolen and found abroad.
"Each case is different and to solve the problems it mainly depends on where
the pieces are," explained Cavalier.
"If the piece is in a private collection it is really hard to track it down
and it's only for one person's pleasure. When the artifacts are in museums, we can
consider that everyone can enjoy the piece," he added.
A thousand copies of the pamphlet published in September 1993 by UNESCO and the International
Museum Commission have been distributed to customs officials, museums and auctions
"These people are the most concerned and they can easily come across Khmer art
works," he said.
The pamphlet may be updated with new stolen artifacts listed but among the 100 identified
in the 1993 edition only three have been located so far, including the Brahma head
sold in Sothebys.
Another is a head removed from a statue of Shiva carved in the tenth century which
is currently in a collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
"The problem is that the Metropolitan is a private museum and if there is no
agreement, the local law will be used," said Cavalier.
In some cases, recovering the artworks may involve a long trial - at great expense
- in order to prove the piece belongs to Cambodia and that it should be returned.
The director of the Metropolitan came to Cambodia last year to discuss the situation.
"We want the head back," said Michel Tranet, undersecretary of state of
the Ministry of Culture.
"The director asked that the head stay in his museum but we still have the statue
in the Angkor conservation depot. It would be better to re-attach it altogether,"
No agreement has been reached.
Some museums abroad, especially in France, Cambodia's former colonial power for 90
years, contain numerous Khmer artifacts brought back by explorers and academics.
"France was proud to bring home those artifacts. Today it is too late to ask
the repatriation of the objects stolen during the colonial time. Those pieces became
French property," said Tranet.
The Guimet Museum in Paris, which specializes in Asian art, holds five or six pieces
sent by the Lon Nol regime during the '70s for restoration. Cambodian authorities
asked France to keep them until the political situation improved.
They seemed forgotten except Son Soubert, vice-chairman of the National Assembly
noticed the artworks and warned the Ministry of Culture in 1993.
"I saw them in one of the museum cases. They were not listed as part of the
museum collection," he said.
The French embassy confirmed that the objects are still at the museum but remained
"The embassy has never received an official request to repatriate those objects,"
said a French embassy spokesman.
During 1994 and 1995, several artifacts not registered in the UNESCO pamphlet were
seized by Thai, US and Dutch customs. Five pieces are in the Netherlands, one in
San Francisco and more than 30 were confiscated by Thai customs last year.
"The Dutch customs warned the minister when they discovered those artifacts.
After having read the book they noticed the pieces looked like Khmer ones. They asked
for a specialist to examine and confirm. Customs asked the Royal Government to intervene
if it wanted the pieces to be seized," explained Cavalier.
The pieces are still being held in the Netherlands.
In January a law was passed which prohibits the export of all cultural treasures
without special authorization. But not all of the Kingdom's art objects have been
registered and most of the stolen artifacts are being slipped across the border,
mostly in the northwest with Thailand. "It is impossible to say how many objects
are illegally crossing the border everyday," said Tranet.
"The best way to limit the traffic and to have the objects back is to let people
know what Khmer art is," said Cavalier.
According to Cavalier, the art exhibit scheduled for 1997 in Japan, the United States
and France - if it takes place - could also be a good way to spread awareness of
Khmer art and avoid the illegal sale of Cambodia's cultural heritage.