ARCHAEOLOGISTS and government officials have high hopes that a new watch list of endangered antiquities will prevent them from being traded illegally.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) this week published its Red List of at-risk Cambodian antiquities, which are commonly looted, trafficked and then sold on the illicit art market.
Items on the list range from the mundane to the divine; everyday objects like spoons, teapots and axes share space with detailed sandstone sculptures of the Hindu deities Vishnu and Ganesha.
But the objects all share one thing in common: They are highly coveted in the illegal art world, one of a series of factors motivating looters and fuelling what observers say has been a decade-long surge in the destruction of invaluable prehistoric sites in the Kingdom.
“It is a big problem,” said Hab Touch, director of the National Museum of Cambodia.
“Illegal excavations and the illicit trafficking of our Cambodian cultural heritage is still going on. It is important to stop that.”
Internationally, it is hoped that museums, collectors and others who deal in art and antiquities will consult the list and ensure they have thoroughly checked for authenticity and legal documentation before buying Cambodian artefacts.
Within Cambodia, the Red List will be distributed to heritage police, local authorities and customs officials stationed at border crossings, through which the tide of the illegal art trade flows.
“The problem is, right now, sometimes they don’t understand the issue well, or understand what kind of art Cambodia needs to protect,” Hab Touch said of the officials.
“I hope this will be one of the tools that can be used to provide that information.”
At this stage, however, authorities in Cambodia have been fighting an uphill battle in stopping the rise of the illegal trade.
“Cambodia has been facing a problem with a loss of cultural heritage for a while,” said archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly, founder and director of the group Heritage Watch.
“Since about 2000, there has been a big increase in the destruction of prehistoric sites.”
Past experience has shown that it can take mere months for a cultural goldmine to be lost forever.
In 2000, workers building a road linking National Road 6 to a small village in Banteay Meanchey province accidentally uncovered a cemetery containing numerous treasures, such as human bones, ceramic pottery and jewellery.
A little over a year later, however, archaeologists reported that 80 percent to 90 percent of the site had been destroyed by looters. By 2003, the site, Phum Snay, was lost forever.
The fate of Phum Snay underscores the fact that the illegal art trade hasn’t just touched high-profile pieces from temples around the Kingdom.
Within the past decade, the surge in the transport of Cambodian antiquities has included smaller items that interest even casual art buyers. A bead the size of a finger can be bought for as little as US$50, O’Reilly said.
Artefacts unearthed at Phum Snay have even made their way to stalls at local markets.
“There is a very substantial domestic market for antiquities as well – the smaller antiquities, because it is affordable,” he said.
Many of the artefacts, however, are being shipped out of country for international buyers; the US Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the losses from global art and cultural property crime top $6 billion each year.
“From anecdotal evidence, we’ve been able to piece together that the bulk of the material is being trafficked across the Thai border,” O’Reilly said.
“Many times, it will be a middleman, and that middleman will take the material to the border and sell it on.”
It remains almost impossible to quantify just how many artefacts have been lost to looting.
“It is rather mind-boggling how much has been pilfered,” O’Reilly said. “When you go to these sites and see piles of human remains that are up to three or four metres high, you get a good idea of how much is missing. It’s all illegal.”
Poverty drives theft
Although international demand has created a market for the looted items, ICOM notes that many of those responsible for stealing the artefacts are doing so because of severe poverty.
“We must not forget that the roots of illicit traffic also lie in the country’s serious economic situation, which exacerbates the environment for looting and theft of artworks,” ICOM notes in materials accompanying the Red List.
“Criminals know how to take advantage of many families’ survival conditions to encourage them to exchange looted objects for money.
“ … Thus it is not enough to take emergency measures which are intended to supply customers, policemen and experts with tools to monitor the art market.”
And although the illegal trade in Cambodian antiquities may be enormous, many national treasures are still resting in international museums – a point of contention for numerous countries that have seen their artefacts lost over the years.
Chuch Poeurn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he hoped the Red List would help jumpstart the return of Cambodian antiquities from abroad.
“We have negotiated with some countries and government leaders to remove our antiquities from their national and private museums and return them to our country,” Chuch Poeurn said during a press conference Tuesday that marked the release of the Red List.
In 1993, ICOM published a list of 100 objects stolen or missing from Cambodia. To date, 10 of the items have been returned, Hab Touch said, including a head that was found at the renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
For now, Cambodian officials say that stemming the flow of pilfered artefacts is more than just integral to the Kingdom’s cultural survival – it is also economically vital.
“It’s not only the identity of the people,” Hab Touch said.
“Our culture contributes many economic benefits to this country. We think that tourists come to Cambodia mainly because of our culture. They come to visit the temples and that does a lot for the economy. If all the sites are destroyed, it won’t be good for us.”