Home sweet home

From ancient shipwrecks to priceless statues, looting has denied fascinating historical insights to nations across the region. A recent legal battle involving Cambodia and prestigious auctioneers Sotheby’s may turn the situation on its head

Denise Hruby
October 14, 2014
Home sweet home
Photo: courtesy of the Norton Simon Foundation. Antique armour: the 'Temple Wrestler', purchased by the Norton Simon Foundation in 1976, dates back to the Angkor period circa 900-975

Whether it is the British Museum, the Hermitage, Le Louvre or any other museum, all over the world millions of visitors can be found lingering over exhibits, reading little descriptions that attempt to elucidate each item’s significance in about 100 words. At best, they manage to bring long-gone cultures and faraway places a little closer to the present. What they fail to reveal, however, is how these pieces got there.

In some cases, visitors and museums would rather not know.

“They were clearly looted,” Anne Lemaistre, country director of Unesco in Cambodia, said of two Angkorian sandstone statues that had been on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for three decades.

Along with seven more statues, each weighing about 90kg and standing 1.2m tall, they were taken from Prasat Chen, a temple inside the Koh Ker site in a remote part of today’s Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia. “You can see, because the pedestals are still there and it is a clear cut, that they were simply hacked off,” Lemaistre continued. A long journey ensued through the hands of several art dealers. Until some of them ended up at museums.

Recently, US auction house Sotheby’s ended a legal battle over one of the statues and voluntarily returned it to Cambodia. The voluntary returns have certainly caused a stir in the museum world. “There is no doubt about the fact that the Cambodian restitutions are having a huge impact at regional and international level and may serve as a high precedent for other similar requests,” said Edouard Planche, Unesco’s specialist on cultural heritage treaties.

Across Southeast Asia, when wars broke out, governments fell victim to corruption, and the opportunity seemed right, looters stole ancient artefacts, making themselves a fortune and robbing countries of their national treasures in one fell swoop. Although national and international laws to protect cultural heritage are plentiful, they are often disputed, and a globalised arts market is adding to the troubles.

While Cambodia, under the guidance of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, has equated the return of the statues with the preservation of its cultural identity, other countries are much less proactive about its stolen goods.

In 1966, a mere coincidence led to one of the biggest archaeological finds in recent history. A foreigner strolling the outskirts of the village of Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand fell over, noticing that he had stumbled on shards of pottery. These shards date back to the bronze age, about 3600BC. The discovery has been described as the most important in Southeast Asia.

But until the Thai government properly protected and started to excavate the site, looters were filling their boots. “Ban Chiang was very heavily looted… up to 98% looted, and most sites in the area were similarly [decimated],” said Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist and expert on prehistory at the Australian National University. Currently, most of the artefacts remain in museums and private collections.

While looting occurs across the globe, it is seldom carried out at government invitation. Yet that is exactly what happened with a shipwreck off Indonesia’s Belitung island, the only known ship that gives proof of trade between China and Africa as early as 1,200 years ago.

Indonesia awarded the rights to excavate the foundered vessel to Seabed Explorations, a company that sells itself on its website as “dedicated to the discovery, excavation, conservation and exhibition of shipwrecks and artefacts of archaeological significance”. 

Two explorations began in 1998 and 1999 and, at first glance, Indonesia struck a good deal. With minimal effort, it raised $2.4m for its share, sold directly to Seabed Explorations. Shortly afterwards, however, Seabed Explorations sold the artefacts to Singapore – for $32m. They were put on show at the Asian Civilisation Museum and caused an international media stir when they were scheduled to be taken to Washington DC’s Smithsonian for a temporary exhibition in 2012. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds never went on show, however, after harsh criticism from the US museum community made the Smithsonian change its mind.

Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institute, said in an email that the exhibit was called off because the artefacts on the wreck had been “unscientifically recovered” by a treasure salvor.

“The material recovered was raised for its monetary value rather than its archaeological/historical value, which is contrary to all ethical guidelines for scientific archaeological excavation,” Johnston said from Washington.

Although Seabed Explorations says that the excavations were carried out in accordance with archaeological guidelines, Felipe Castro, a professor of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University, said that he could only imagine how much has been lost during the salvage operations. “I think that treasure hunting is a criminal activity, like polluting, or arms dealing (oftentimes we are talking about the same people). And I am [disappointed] if the Indonesian government chose a model to manage its submerged cultural heritage that encourages salvage operations,” said De Castro. 

While Indonesia deliberately sold the artefacts, the Philippines finds itself in the opposite position. It is currently fighting a mini war over two church bells previously found in the town of Balangiga. Although the bells have little significance to the art world, their history has kept the Philippines pushing for their return from the US for more than 100 years.

During the Philippine-American war in 1901, Filipinos used the church bells as a signal for an attack on the US army. The bells were then taken as war booty and are now located at US military bases in Wyoming and South Korea.

Victor Paz, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ archaeological studies programme, has no doubt that the bells should be classified as looted. “They were taken during the Philippine-American war as trophies to spite a community who gave the American army in Samar a bloody nose,” he said. “It is definitely an emotional issue for the people of Samar, and the battle of Balangiga is highlighted in our Nationalist rendition of Philippine history.”

In the 1990s, President Fidel Ramos lobbied US President Bill Clinton to return the bells. Clinton put Ramos off, saying an Act of Congress was needed to do so, as the bells were considered the property of the US. He was similarly unmoved by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, who said that church bells could not be taken as war trophies.

According to Paz, the Philippines is still trying to have the bells returned but, he said, efforts “have consistently been lacklustre”. The bells have become an uphill battle for the Philippines, in a case that has seen little traction in recent years. But Cambodia might just have given it, and the museum world, a push in the right direction.

According to Unesco’s Planche, the case of Cambodia’s returned Prasat Chen statues would not only serve as a precedent, it should help change the zeitgeist on how these cases are viewed. 

“This impact is particularly tangible [in] the attitude of the art market, as well as private and public institutions,” he said. “[Cambodia’s case] is a clear request for due diligence before acquiring cultural objects, for purchases in good faith and for more respect given to deontological professional rules and ethical codes.” 

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