Khmer heritage plundered

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The missing head of a carving was taken from Ta Prohm temple. Photograph: Tess Davis

The temples of Preah Khan Kompong Svay sit deep in the jungles of northwestern Cambodia, one hundred kilometres from Siem Reap town. In the 10th century, the temples formed an elaborate monastic complex that, in their pristine heyday, demonstrated the architectural talent of one of the most advanced civilisations in Asia: the Khmer empire.

Today, though, much of the complex has been ransacked. After the Khmer Rouge regime brought about destruction to the entire region, Preah Khan Kompong fell victim to explorers, looters, profiteers, and smugglers. The temples have weathered not just the natural decay that time brings, but the rapid destruction wrought by dynamite and weaponry, hammers and chisels.

Contrary to what the tour guides tell you, the looting of ancient sites in Cambodia is far from an ancient phenomenon. What started during the chaos of civil war in the 1970s has kept apace until the present day, and according to experts, shows no signs of abating, posing a real threat to the cultural heritage of the country.

“Looting from temples and prehistoric sites has reached alarming levels, particularly in prehistoric objects, with a sharp increase for the latter since 2000 in the northwest regions,” said Dougald O’Reilly, archeologist and professor at the Australian National University and the founder of Heritage Watch, an organization dedicated to fighting the illegal trade in antiquities in South East Asia.

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“Cambodia has a great historic past. The beginning of Angkor signaled the beginning of the state level in Asia and the evolution of the Khmer civilisation. [Losing that]  would have a catastrophic impact for tourism and science and what we can learn.”

“If we lose the prehistoric sites to looting, we will not be able to understand how the state operated, we will not be able to understand anything. Untold knowledge of the past is being lost.”

Border trouble

The first problem faced by preservationists and authorities is an insurmountable one: geography. Most of Cambodia’s vulnerable architecture is situated near the roads leading to Thailand, which are the main trafficking corridors that link Khmer temple sites to international buyers on the black market.

“Raiders are locals. These people live around the temples”, says Major General Tan Chay from the Heritage Protection Police department. “They know where they are and how to get there. In Northern Cambodia, it is easier. There is a good deal of middlemen coming from Thailand that convince people to dig stuff out. That’s how traffic comes into being.”

Porous borders ensure risk-free crossing into neighboring countries without detection.

“Once an item reaches Bangkok, it vanishes,” Chay said.

From there on, they sell for big money. In a 2012 bulletin report, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation called the multibillion-dollar fine art trade the third most profitable crime worldwide, behind the trafficking of weapons and narcotics.

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“The art trade has been, at times, shady and unscrupulous, with closed doors and lips, gentlemanly vows of silence, and blind eyes,’” the report reads.

From Bangkok, antiques travel around the world, ending up in the hands of private collectors or even American and European galleries, auction houses and museums, which are allegedly full of plunder from Cambodian ancient sites. 

Last year, a 75-centimetre-high Khmer statue from the Angkor period estimated at $US350,000 sold for US$1,142,500 at

Christie’s auction house. Another torso from the Angkor period evaluated between $30,000 and $50,000 reached an $80,500 hammer price.

Matthew Paton, director of communications at Christie’s said that “such objects are offered only where it is lawful to do so”.

“Our auctions are public. All auction catalogues are published online, freely accessible. Our catalogues are distributed to governmental authorities, and screened by the Art Loss Register. With this exposure, we strive to ensure that illicitly sourced cultural property does not enter the legitimate market place,” says Paton.

While these were authorized sales, they illustrate the keen interest for Khmer fine art.


While some institutions and individuals have voluntarily given back antiquities to Cambodia on learning that they were plundered during the country’s bloody history, much has been lost. In recent years, though, countries around the world have stepped up their efforts to regain cultural antiquities. Cambodia is no different, and Cambodia has had no less trouble in recovering its treasures.

For Kong Vireak, the curator of the National Museum of Cambodia, it’s a matter of national pride.

“We launch lawsuits, but it is hard to follow up on them as few in the art world would agree to return any of these unique collectibles for free.There is so much to lose in dollar value to these pieces of fine art,” he said.

Prosecution cases drag on for years, come with a hefty price tag, and offer meager results. Legal arguments before a court need solid and documented evidence of illicit sourcing. Taking to court every individual in possession of Khmer art of suspicious origin is a daunting challenge with adverse parties unwilling to surrender.

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A looted site in Phnom Banan (outside Battambang). Photograph: Tess Davis

According to the FBI, the recovery rate stands between 2 to 6 per cent of all stolen antiques.

The US government has offered support in taking all possible legal action on American soil to secure recovery of stolen items. In March 2012, at Cambodia’s prodding, the US government pulled the Duryodhana statue, deemed stolen from a Sotheby’s auction house and has been entangled in a strenuous legal battle since then.

But the battles are usually lose well before they make it to a courtroom. As Major General Tan Chay, the director of the Heritage Protection Police department says: “No traceability, no recovery. If looters find the item before us, it is lost forever. Practically, we will have no way to prove they smuggled it out of Cambodia.”

Tracking it down

The Khmer empire known as Cambodia ruled over parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. The empire, in its zenith, imposed a cultural domination over.

Southeast Asia, and generated a colossal and diverse collection of art. To this day, archeologists are still unearthing pieces, and many sites are waiting to be discovered. Any artifacts from the Angkor period can, therefore, originate from any part of the former empire.

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Cambodia’s National Museum has set up a tracking inventory with Interpol meant to identify every characteristic of the antiques, from the exact time of production to the manufacturing location. As for safeguarding what’s here – that has to be done directly in Cambodia.

Raising awareness among the population and highlighting the value of these treasures are often the best, and only, protective measures.

Public education is crucial. Heritage Watch runs different awareness raising programs. They educate the public on the artistic, informational, historical, cultural, and economic importance of heritage resources.

However, the astronomical amounts of money that can be generated by the sale of one single antique works against the drive to protect local art.

“Poverty is a factor working against us. The temptation is strong. The authorities need to send a message this is an illegal activity,” says O’Reilly from Heritage Watch.

For artwork that is already out of country, circulating freely in the other countries, some advocates are using a different tactic.

Tess Davis, a former executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Preservation Heritage, has campaigned for the recovery of what she has called “blood antiquities”

“Collectors and museums have a choice and can treat Cambodia’s efforts to recover its stolen heritage as an obstacle, or right past wrongs and set the moral standard for the art world,” Davis says. “Most Cambodian “artworks” are sacred objects that were never meant to be bought or sold.”

The best that authorities can do, it seems, is to protect what’s left. Recovering lost objects will take a long time, and according to Davis, the effort could be for naught if their current owners have no interest in taking part.

“The majority of looted Khmer antiquities will probably never be returned to the Cambodian people”, says Davis.


To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvain Gharbi at [email protected]