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New weapon to fight theft of Khmer relics

New weapon to fight theft of Khmer relics

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HENG CHIVOAN

Looting of Khmer artifacts has prompted the publication of a list of ill-gotten items to look out for.

The illicit trade in Khmer antiquities has

led to the creation of the Red List by an international arts

organization as a tool to help customs officials, police officers, art

dealers and collectors recognize artifacts unlawfully smuggled out of

Cambodia.

To be published in September by the International Council of Museums

(ICOM), the Red List describes the types of artifacts most favored in

the illicit antiquities market.

It offers sufficient identifying features that "if a customs officer

opens a package and sees something similar, they can contact local

officials to authenticate it," said Jennifer Thevenot, the ICOM officer

in charge of the project.

"It's difficult to say if the looting situation in Cambodia has gotten

better. It's still dramatic," said Thevenot. "I can say this from

wandering through Paris auction houses."

She noted that "cultural tourism is a main source of income for

Cambodia, so robbing artifacts is robbing the country of income."

Cambodia is one of only four countries to have a Red List. The others

are Iraq, Afghanistan and Peru, while similar lists exist for Africa

and Latin America.

While she specified the Ministry of Interior's cultural heritage police

and Interpol as the most likely officials to make use of the Red List,

she said the booklet was an awareness-raising tool that could be easily

distributed and interpreted.

Even eBay and other internet trading sites were beginning to monitor the sale of antiquities using the lists, she said.  

"It generates international interest and gives visibility to the

problem," she said, and, while the list would have no legal authority,

it was meant to stimulate domestic and international lawmaking and law

enforcement.

A major legal issue for Cambodia, she explained, was that Thailand and

Singapore, both popular transit points for the illegal trade in Khmer

antiquities, were not signatories of the 1970 UN resolution on the

trafficking of cultural heritage which obligated countries to monitor

the traffic of antiquities across their borders.

"This could be an opportunity to hold a press conference in Thailand

where we could make a pitch for them to become a signatory," said

Thevenot.

A consultative group met June 23-25 at Cambodia's National Museum of

Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to draft the Red List for Cambodia. The group,

which included representatives of the National Museum, the Ministry of

Culture, and the NGOs Heritage Watch and Friends of Khmer Culture,

agreed to a list organized according to pre-Angkor, Angkor, and

post-Angkor periods, in categories of stone, metal, wood, and ceramic

works.

The  document, to be published in Khmer, English, French and possibly

Thai, will also include a list of all cultural heritage laws that

impact on Cambodia.

"Looting of Angkor-era relics has been going on for so long that there

isn't much left to take, so now the looting of prehistoric items is a

bigger issue," said Dougald O'Reilly, head of Heritage Watch.

O'Reilly said the new list would be a boon for a country that, only

recently, was viewed as one of the easiest places to pilfer from.

Officials at the Angkor complex in the 1990s, he said, used to speak of

photographers documenting the temples for dealers in Bangkok who would

make catalogues from which collectors could order pieces to be stolen. 

Nuon Than, administrative head of the heritage police, said officers in

his department were scheduled to receive training on July 4 on how to

use the list. 

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