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Angkor revisited: how master craftsmen are forging Khmer antiquities

Di Bun Pheav unearths the arms of a statue from a manganese solution that speeds up the ageing process.
Di Bun Pheav unearths the arms of a statue from a manganese solution that speeds up the ageing process. Eliah Lillis

Angkor revisited: how master craftsmen are forging Khmer antiquities

Several workshops near Siem Reap are masterfully replicating Angkorian-era sculptures. Many end up on the international market. But are their forgeries a crime?

Dusty statues litter the floor of Di Bun Pheav’s workshop, arms snapped off of their blackened torsos. A statue of Ganesh lies near a pedestal with a pair of feet attached. Pieces of broken statues are everywhere. To the untrained eye, the yard looks like an archeological site, with stone elbows jutting out from under shrubs and mounds of dirt. But despite the wear and tear they exhibit, the pieces are barely a year old.

“If someone dug these up from the ground, they would think they’re originals,” says Pheav, whose friends call him Terry.

For 12 years, Terry has worked to perfect his craft, artificially ageing statues so that professional archaeologists have trouble distinguishing them from pieces from the Angkorian period, which lasted from the ninth to the 15th century.

Terry is part of a small group of Siem Reap sculptors who are creating high-end reproductions of antiquities. In workshops around the province, they carve and age sculptures that perfectly duplicate ancient works. Their statues are then sold to art dealers in Thailand, many of whom market the items to tourists and art dealers as genuine Angkorian or pre-Angkorian pieces. Sometimes, the items are sold to European dealers who can sell them for millions of dollars to museums and auction houses in the United States and Europe.

Khmer antiquities have been sold in auction houses for prices as high as $3 million, though a sampling of more than 300 Khmer sculptures sold at Sotheby’s in New York between 1988 and 2010 averaged $17,000 to $24,000 per item.

According to Jim Sanborn, an American sculptor who studies Khmer antiquities, only about 40 percent of the Khmer antiquities for sale in Bangkok’s River City gallery complex, where much of the Cambodian-made statuary is sold, are genuine. He also says that a portion of the Khmer antiquities that have ended up in museums are not as old as they appear to be.

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Feet broken off from finished statues at Di Bun Pheav’s gallery space. Eliah Lillis

Many collectors see the pieces as well-made forgeries, intended to dupe buyers, a fact that would render their makers criminals. But Sanborn says the artists are providing a valuable service. Amid the chaos of war and the Khmer Rouge regime, looters plundered genuine Cambodian artefacts throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Artists like Terry, Sanborn says, are meeting the foreign demand for ancient artwork without contributing to the rampant looting of the Kingdom’s temples.

“This large-scale production of perfect replicas is both heroic and legal,” he says. “These artists are not producing forgeries. Their works only attain that moniker when they are sold as originals by dealers, auction houses, and other third parties.”

Sanborn has spent time with Cambodia’s foremost reproduction artists and has even dabbled in the art of statuary ageing. After visiting Cambodia for the first time six years ago, he purchased new statues and began experimenting with ageing techniques at home. He is currently preparing an exhibition on forged antiquities and looting, and he wanted pieces that looked genuine to fill his collection.

“I learned as much as I could about the surfaces and how to do this,” Sanborn explains. “And then I went back [to Cambodia] and showed them my work. They were impressed. It created camaraderie.”

A tale of two families
Down a dusty red road about 60 kilometres outside of Siem Reap, Terry’s workshop is bustling. His team sits under the shade of tarps and palm trees while perfecting their sculptures, while emaciated chickens run around the yard, and family members come and go on motorbikes. Demand is high. Local artists ask him to age their sculptures, and he even runs a mobile ageing service that visits galleries around the region where artists are interested in giving their work a worn effect.

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A worker at Chatna Tuor’s workshop finishes carving a Buddha statue. Eliah Lillis

Much of the work involves making antique replicas, which are then put up for sale. Terry employs seven men to make the statues, break their limbs, and age them. After the statues are carved, they are soaked in nitric and sulfuric acid, which wears away the smooth surfaces, gnawing crannies into the stone. The statues spend four or five days soaking in the solution.

“The acid is trying to eat away the stone here,” says Terry, pointing to the pockmarked surface on one of his pieces.

To rid the sculptures of traces of acid, the statues are boiled repeatedly in local tree bark. Then they are subjected to sand blasting, which gives the stone a rough appearance, and painted with potassium permanganate, which Cambodians use to clean vegetables. The chemical gives the statues a darker tone.

As a final step, the sculptures are buried in a manganese solution and left to sit under Siem Reap’s red clay for months.

Terry pulls pieces of broken limbs from underneath the dirt. There is a market for these smaller pieces, he explains. He could sell a small head for about $500 to $600.

But most art dealers only want the bigger bodies and heads, he continues. Often they will send Terry pictures of original artefacts and ask him to replicate them.

When the sculptures are ready, he brings them in his truck to the Thai border and hands them to a Thai military official working there. He says he doesn’t know who the man is, but the dealers he works with in Thailand pick up the sculptures directly from the official.

Terry sells about two or three statues to Thailand each month for between $5,000 and $15,000 per statue, he says.

Although business is brisk, Terry says he’s concerned about his and his family’s health. He inherited the business from his uncle, who has retired due to health problems many suspect were caused by the acid.

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Chhatna Tuor at his workshop in Siem Reap. Eliah Lillis

Terry uses a mask to protect himself from the fumes, but large plastic tanks of acid lie around his property.

His young daughter walks around the site barefoot, absentmindedly sticking her big toe in the manganese solution as she looks up at her father.

His family is not the only one in Cambodia with a background in antiquities reproduction. For the past two decades, the family of Chhatna Tuor has also been perfecting the craft. Closer to the centre of Siem Reap, five men sit on the floor of Chhatna’s workshop carving sculptures with chisels.

Chhatna is a third-generation artist specialising in sculpture. His family is well known in Siem Reap’s art world, and artists from around the world come to learn his sculpting techniques.

Five of Chhatna’s nine siblings are also sculptors. His brother, Dara Tuor, owns a spacious studio next to Chhatna’s workshop. A photo of the men’s father with former King Norodom Sihanouk hangs on the wall.

Like Terry, Chhatna sells several aged statues each month. It takes three men about two months to make one statue standing two meters high, he explains. He employs nine full-time sculptors.

The best quality stones come from Kratie and Preah Vihear province, where they are harder than elsewhere and better for carving statues that look old.

“Ageing a sculpture takes twice as long as making it,” he says. “Usually between four to six months.”

Chhatna says the Thai buyers he works with are aware that the statues are new. But he also knows the statues are passed to numerous salesmen before reaching their final destination. The Khmer artists never meet the final buyers, and Chhatna claims to have no knowledge of what happens to the statues after they leave his possession.

“Maybe some people sell them and maybe some keep them for their homes. I don’t think they end up in museums,” he says. “But no one can tell if the statues are original or false.”

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Jim Sanborn works on a piece in the US. Photo supplied.

Finding forgeries
According to art historian Jeff Taylor, who specialises in forgeries, sculptures are the most difficult forgeries to identify. Sculptors like Terry and Chhatna often use the same stones and carving techniques artists used hundreds of years ago. Unlike ceramics or painting pigment, the stones cannot be dated.

“A real piece will be sitting in the jungle for years, so you’d be looking for plant matter, soil, pollen,” Taylor says. “But good forgers would know how to do that.”

Today’s artists could be tempted to use modern power tools that let them carve a statue faster, which would be a tip off. People looking to verify a piece’s age could look for marks or minerals that would indicate a power tool was used. But exceptionally good forgers will use replicas of tools commonly used hundreds of years ago.

Museums such as the Metropolitan in New York are working on identifying new authenticity tests for sculptures, but their work is ongoing, says Sanborn. It’s part of an effort to keep forged antiquities out of museums.

US museums have largely stopped buying Khmer antiquities altogether because they believe many pieces are either forged or are looted items that would eventually have to be repatriated. In 1970, Unesco passed the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The move was meant to prohibit antiquities that were looted in the global south from being sold to museums and private collectors.

“Museums started to demand export permits and proof that the pieces had been owned before 1970, in order to verify it hadn’t been looted after 1970,” Taylor explains.

Most of the statues looted from temples across Cambodia were taken in the late 1970s during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, years after the Unesco ruling came into effect. Before then, there was very little interest in Cambodian statuary on the international market, Taylor says, meaning that almost none of the Cambodian statues on the market are legal.

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A Buddha statue at Chhatna Tuor’s workshop. Eliah Lillis

According to Sanborn, many genuine looted Khmer pieces were available on the antiquities market in the 1980s, but the supply began to dwindle in the 1990s, allowing high-end reproductions to fill the void.

Nevertheless, big auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s often focus their scrutiny on whether a sculpture is looted rather than forged, he says.

“The auction houses in some ways are unwitting,” he adds. “At this point in time, the objects are so realistic and perfect that no one can tell if they’re real or not. The quality of high-end Khmer reproductions has reached a level of sophistication that rivals any genuine object.”

What makes a fake?

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Di Bun Pheav at his workshop in Siem Reap. Eliah Lillis

Legally speaking, forgers are only guilty of a crime if they intentionally deceive a client. And while they may be contributing to an industry of illegal forgeries, the artists making the pieces often don’t recognise the implicit ethical dilemma in their work.

Terry, for example, says he believes the Europeans buying his goods would still purchase the items if they knew their real age. He hopes one day they’ll come directly to his studio instead of going to Thailand.

Taylor, however, says this attitude is part of the reason Cambodia’s forgers make less money than the people who sell their artwork as authentic.

“If they are selling reproductions, they’ll get some money,” Taylor says. “But they’ll get a lot of money if they’re considered authentic, because that’s what collectors want.”

Still, many of the artists in the reproduction industry don’t understand the concept of forgery. Sculptors from the Angkorian era aren’t known by name today, which means that today’s sculptors aren’t guilty of replicating a specific artist’s work.

“The sculptures aren’t 1,000 years old, but they’re done by the same people, by the people of Cambodia, carving, making these idols of various deities and figures from their religious cosmology. So are they fake?” Taylor asks.

“The idea that something is inauthentic because it was made with the same materials and the same style a year ago, that’s a Western notion. In Cambodia, these are concepts that are unknown.”


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