Looted Cambodian Artifacts Highly Desirable in US Art Market

Looted artifacts of Khmer cultural her­itage from Cambodia are extremely desirable in the art market and fuel a global multibillion-dollar illicit industry of antiquities, participants of a workshop on preventing cultural property crimes said Monday.

Speaking on the first day of a three-day workshop organized by the U.S. Embassy and the Royal Acad­emy of Judicial Professions, Bonnie Mag­ness-Gardiner, the manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program —which oversees the U.S.’ efforts to combat stolen art and cultural property—said the FBI is unable to estimate the exact value of stolen artifacts coming out of Cambodia.

“The assumption is it’s a multibillion dollar [industry]. But because it’s a black market, we don’t get any accounting,” Ms. Magness-Gardiner said. “Certainly things coming out of the ground—we don’t even know if they are stolen…but it is a very, very large industry.”

Ms. Magness-Gardiner also stressed that the U.S. needs to cooperate with the Cambodian government to prevent these crimes from happening, because in other countries where there is similar looting, the proceeds are often used to fund organized crime.

“More than that, the cultural heritage in jeopardy is your cultural heritage. It is the property of the Cambodian people and the government; it is part of your identity,” she said. “You lose your heritage or the context in which that heritage is created if the archaeological sites are damaged, if things are taken out of country and disappear into a private collection.”

Todd Swain, an art theft investigator from the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service, said on the sidelines of the workshop that there is a large amount of recently looted Cambodian artifacts entering the U.S.

“There’s lots of material openly for sale in auction houses, galleries, online. On any given day, there are probably thousands of Cambodian items being offered for sale,” Mr. Swain said, adding that items such as sandstone statuaries and bronze and glass jewelry are common.

Small bronze earrings, about 5 to 8 cm long, can be auctioned off for about $500, while a bronze vase could fetch tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Hab Touch, director-general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that his ministry’s priority is to educate people living in remote areas of the value of cultural heritage.

“The participation of local communities is very important in the protection and prevention of illicit trafficking. How can we encourage local people to protect their culture? That needs education,” he said.

© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.