Nancy Wiener, a prominent antiquities dealer who specialises in Southeast Asian art, was arrested in New York on Wednesday for allegedly selling stolen artefacts from the Kingdom to high-end art collectors, a development welcomed by Cambodian Ministry of Culture officials.
“This is very good news for us,” said Kong Vireak, director of Cambodia’s National Museum. “We are working with our network in the United States to see what we can find from her collection. We hope that it will lead to the discovery of Cambodian art.”
Wiener, a second-generation art dealer whose family sold antiquities to John D Rockefeller III and Jacqueline Kennedy, has been charged with obtaining millions of dollars’ worth of artefacts from international smugglers, including pieces from Cambodia, Thailand and India.
In March, a police raid of Wiener’s gallery led to the discovery of a 10th-century bronze Buddha statue worth $850,000 that is thought to have been smuggled from Cambodia or Thailand.
According to a complaint filed in the Manhattan Criminal Court, Wiener and her co-conspirators began trafficking stolen artefacts as early as 1999, and employed careful techniques to hide the artefacts’ origins and legitimise their sale.
“Defendant used a laundering process that included restoration services to hide damage from illegal excavations, straw purchases at auction houses to create sham ownership histories, and the creation of false provenance to predate international laws of patrimony prohibiting the exportation of looted antiquities,” the complaint read.
Cambodia has long been a fertile ground for criminals dealing in artefact smuggling. Key Angkorian pieces from the Kingdom have been discovered in prestigious auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The 1998 looting of the Banteay Chhmar temple in northern Cambodia is widely considered one of the most notorious cases of antiquities theft in the country’s history. Likewise, the temples of Preah Khan Kompong Svay have been thoroughly pillaged.
In 2010, in an effort to alert international law enforcement agencies about the issue, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published a comprehensive “Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk.”
But as more attention is given to the issue, some artefacts have begun to make their way back to the Kingdom.
In 2015, 11 pieces of art, including two Angkor-era statues, were returned by a Norwegian art collector in a ceremony at the National Museum. That same year, Thai officials handed over 16 artefacts discovered in the possession of a Thai smuggler. Cambodia also began working with US authorities to repatriate $3 million worth of Cambodian antiquities allegedly smuggled by New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now on trial in India.
Wiener is accused of possessing items smuggled by Kapoor, who US officials named “one of the most prolific smugglers in the world”.
A 2012 report by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation deemed the multibillion-dollar fine art trade the third-most profitable criminal activity worldwide, falling behind only weapons trafficking and narcotics.
For now, it’s unclear which smugglers Wiener collaborated with in Cambodia and how many pieces of Cambodian art are in her gallery, Vireak noted.
“We’re just starting to study this,” he said. “But we know she’s one of the biggest dealers of Southeast Asian art.”
Additional reporting by The New York Times