ON A SWELTERING FRIDAY afternoon two years ago in Phnom Penh, Anne Lemaistre, the head of UNESCO’s office in Cambodia, received an unusually urgent phone call from Paris. On the line was Pierre Baptiste, Southeast Asia curator of the Guimet Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Cambodian antiquities in the world. “Have you seen what is on sale at Sotheby’s?” Baptiste asked, the excitement evident in his voice.
Lemaistre opened an email from Baptiste and gasped. On her screen was a strikingly beautiful and well-preserved Cambodian statue from the 10th Century. Sotheby’s had placed the piece on the cover of its catalogue for Asia Week, a high-profile auction event set to begin the following Monday in New York. The 500-pound sandstone sculpture, described in the catalogue as “among the great masterpieces of Khmer art,” depicted a Hindu deity, bare-chested and wearing a sly grin, with his knees bent at right angles, poised to leap into the air. “What is this?” Lemaistre exclaimed into the phone, her pulse quickening.
Lemaistre could tell that the piece was exceptional: it was freestanding and captured a figure in mid-movement, rare traits in the canon of ancient Khmer art, whose practitioners favored bas-reliefs and static figures. Its estimated value of $2-3 million reflected the skyrocketing demand among collectors for Southeast Asian antiquities, a market dominated by Sotheby’s, which had total sales of $5.4 billion last year. It was obvious to Lemaistre that the piece was one of the most important Southeast antiquities to appear in a generation. The problem was, neither she nor Baptiste, two of the world’s leading experts in the field, had ever seen it before.
Lemaistre quickly called her colleague Bertrand Porte, a sculpture conservator at Cambodia’s National Museum, whose rust-colored, neo-Angkorian roof was visible outside her office window. Porte didn’t recognize the statue, either. “It reminds me of the piece in the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena,” he said. That sculpture, a 10th century sandstone work depicting Bhima, a major character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, had been at the California museum since 1980. Archeologists had traced its origins to the lost Cambodian city of Koh Ker, the capital of the Khmer kingdom from 928 to 944 AD, where its pedestal and feet remained, crudely hacked off from the rest of the figure with brute force.
Lemaistre and Porte knew that Koh Ker had been the target of widespread looting during Cambodia’s three-decade civil war, which began in the late 1960s and included the cataclysmic reign of the Khmer Rouge. If the Sotheby’s statue had indeed come from that area, there was a high probability that it had been looted and if UNESCO could prove this, Cambodia might have a legal basis to ask for its return. But time was running out.
At dinner that night, Lemaistre, an elegant Parisian with long blonde hair and a sarcastic streak, happened to bump into Porte. When they discussed the piece again, they began to have serious doubts about acting. For one, there was little time to gather the necessary evidence to stop the sale, set to occur in just six days, a miniscule amount of time in a field where conclusions are reached after years of painstaking research. And if they did attempt to intervene, and the piece turned out to be a fake, which was a strong possibility given its sudden appearance on the market, they would look amateurish — and lack credibility the next time. “It’s simply not possible to stop the sale,” Lemaistre told Porte.
However, she began to change her mind over the weekend. Working from home, she exchanged a series of emails with Eric Bourdonneau, an archeologist at the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient in Paris who had done fieldwork at Koh Ker. A prominent temple at the site called Prasat Chen, where the Norton Simon piece had come from, contained a second pedestal and set of feet that had mystified archeologists for years and had no known sculptural match. This second pedestal also bore damage typical of looting, just like the Norton Simon’s. Using computer models, Bourdonneau became convinced that the Sotheby’s statue belonged to the mysterious second pedestal, and that it depicted the deity Duryodhana just as he was about to engage in battle with the Norton Simon’s Bhima, a story told in the Mahabharata.
Lemaistre found Bourdonneau’s analysis persuasive, but she still needed assurance that the statue wasn’t a fake. On Monday evening, she received word from Baptiste at the Guimet Museum that a Khmer statue identical to the one at Sotheby’s had been put up for sale in 1975 by Spink & Son, a prominent London auction house, a transaction that had been recorded in the Guimet’s extensive archives. For Lemaistre, this piece of information confirmed that the statue was authentic — Cambodian antiquities had only become popular among collectors in recent years, meaning that no one would have bothered to fake such a piece 40 years ago — and thus provided the impetus she needed to intervene.
On Wednesday morning, just 36 hours before the Duryodhana was set to appear on the auction block, Lemaistre called the office of Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the second most powerful person in the government. (UNESCO alone can’t ask for the repatriation of antiquities; source-country governments must do so.) “Your Excellency, we need you to sign a letter opposing the sale,” Lemaistre told Sok. Although the Cambodian government’s priority was protecting antiquities it already had rather than going after ones it had lost, the piece’s historical and artistic significance convinced Sok to act. The government sent a letter to Sotheby’s dated March 24, the day of the auction, requesting the Duryodhana’s return.
Late Thursday evening in Phnom Penh, as the hour of the statue’s sale approached 12 time zones away in New York, Lemaistre anxiously monitored the Sotheby’s website, feverishly refreshing her screen for news. “We were sweating. We didn’t know what the effect of the letter would be. It was a kind of detective movie,” she later recalled. Then, mere hours before the piece was to go up for auction, it disappeared from the Sotheby’s website without explanation. Lemaistre, exhausted from the stress and a string of sleepless nights, cheered with joy. “That was very, very nice,” she said.
The sale had been stopped, but the fight over the statue was just beginning. Over the next year, the Cambodian government would negotiate unsuccessfully with Sotheby’s over the piece’s return, before eventually turning to the State Department for help. The US government, eager to score points with a close ally of China as the Obama Administration redirects its resources toward Asia, would throw itself behind Cambodia’s claim and file a lawsuit in a US court for its return. United States Of America v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture, the curiously named case that now awaits trial in the Southern District of New York, will ultimately decide the statue’s fate.
Sotheby’s says that the owner on whose behalf it was auctioning the piece, a Belgian widow named Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, acquired it legally and has every right to sell it. In court filings, the auction house’s attorneys argue that the statue could have been removed from Cambodia at any point during its 1,000-year history, and that the current Cambodian government has no legal claim on a piece “abandoned to the jungle 50 generations ago.” They have called the US government’s case “inconsistent with United States and foreign law … and common sense.”
Cambodia says it has proof that the Duryodhana was stolen in 1972 by an armed group during its civil war, effectively making it, like the conflict diamonds of Africa, a blood antiquity protected by the country’s patrimony laws. But more is at stake than the fate of one historically significant statue. The case is a landmark in the growing movement to restrict the trade in stolen art and antiquities, worth an estimated $4-6 billion annually. In recent years, European nations such as Italy and Greece have successfully secured the return of thousands of suspect pieces from American museums and collectors, often with the help of US law enforcement officials, placing serious legal and ethical constraints on the market for Classical antiquities. As that market has shrunk, collectors and dealers have moved elsewhere, including into the Asian market, a veritable free-for-all by comparison.
Cambodia hopes the case will staunch the tide of looting from its rich archeological sites, which is rampant to this day, and help secure the return of dozens of important pieces that have already left the country, many of which are on display in prominent American and European museums. “If this case is successful, it’s really going to open up a lot of potential claims in the United States. Because, frankly, American museums are full of war loot from Cambodia,” said Tess Davis, an American attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. The case has already compelled the Metropolitan Museum in New York to voluntarily return two statues from its collection that were taken from the same area of Koh Ker as the Duryodhana. “Anywhere we can find our artifacts, we will go after them, if we have the proof,” said Chan Tani, a Cambodian government official working on the case. “I don’t expect that we’ll get everything back. But anything we can do, we will do.”
As present-day conflicts have opened the door to widespread looting in poor, archeologically rich countries like Mali and Syria, Cambodia’s pursuit of its own plundered war treasure stands as an important test case. Can a small, undeveloped country still recovering from one of the most vicious episodes of the 20th century reclaim a piece of its artistic heritage in a US court of law? In order to do so, the US federal attorney prosecuting the case must answer two crucial questions. When was the statue taken out of Cambodia? And did anyone own it when it was removed?
In February of this year, two US Justice Department prosecutors traveled from New York to Cambodia in order to gather evidence for the case on the ground at Koh Ker. Three months later, I found myself in a bus bumping along the same rutted, copper-colored dirt road they had traveled, hoping to see what sort of clues they might have found. I was along for the ride with Chen Chanratana, a 34-year-old Cambodian archeologist who wrote his PhD thesis on Koh Ker at the Sorbonne, and a group of his university students from Phnom Penh. It was the dry season, so the rice paddies were brown and parched, and the entire landscape was blanketed in a thick layer of dust that the occasional passing car or motorbike kicked up into long, billowing plumes.
Koh Ker has long been one of the most inaccessible of Cambodia’s important archeological sites. Located in the impoverished, sparsely populated northwest, the ancient Khmer capital was only recently cut out of the jungle and cleared of landmines left over from the brutal civil war. Further intensifying the site’s feeling of remoteness is its close association with the Khmer Rouge, which occupied the area from the early 1970s until its ultimate surrender in 1998. Today, most residents there are former Khmer Rouge fighters who held out until the bitter end and now scrape by as subsistence rice farmers.
After the bus deposited us at Koh Ker, Chen led the group on a tour of the major temples, many of which have been reduced to heaps of crumbling laterite walls and piles of moss-covered columns. Stopping frequently to tell stories of Cambodia’s glorious past to his enraptured students, Chen, who eschews the functional dress of his archeological peers in favor of fashionable distressed jeans and buckled loafers, spoke into a battery-powered megaphone that sent his voice crackling around the grounds, which were empty except for a few stray dogs and some villagers selling snacks.
Chen’s interest in Koh Ker is unusual among Cambodian archeologists. For most of the 20th Century, the focus was on the city of Angkor, the largest known urban area in the preindustrial world and the seat of the Khmer empire for much of its 600-year existence. At its height, the kingdom dominated most of present-day Indochina, with its territory extending far into Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and parts of Burma and China. Compared to the ornate splendor of the traditional capital city of Angkor, though, which has breathtakingly elaborate depictions of epic battles carved into nearly every structural surface, Koh Ker’s relatively unadorned pediments and clean architectural lines can feel austere. For this reason, historians long considered it insignificant.
When Chen visited for the first time in 2003, Koh Ker captured his imagination. Jayavarman IV, the upstart king who moved the seat of government from Angkor to Koh Ker in 928, embarked on a massive building project that transformed, in less than a decade, a sleepy rural village into a grand city worthy of his status as god-king. The relocation of the capital represented more than just a political rupture; it ushered in a new era of Khmer art in which the statue would reign supreme. With instructions from the king to make a bold artistic statement, the country’s best sculptors liberated the characters of the Hindu epics from the spatial confines of the bas reliefs and depicted them leaping, dancing and soaring into space. “Technically, it’s very difficult to go from bas reliefs to free-standing statues in such a short time. Capturing movement in three dimensions is very complex,” Chen said. “These are amazing, beautiful pieces.”
In the years following Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, a small number of French archeologists began to appreciate Koh Ker’s significance. Madeleine Giteau, the last French curator of Cambodia’s National Museum, traveled to the site in 1965 to study and photograph it. Although many of the structures were concealed by foliage, she found a wealth of temples and sculptures that were remarkably well preserved — a virtual open-air museum undisturbed by human hands. Just two years later, however, the situation had changed. Bernard Philippe Groslier, another French archeologist, visited and recorded evidence of looting in his diary.
Changes in Koh Ker and the country as a whole might have contributed to the arrival of looters. By the time of Groslier’s visit, the government had finished building a road to the site, making the removal of statues much easier logistically. In addition, the political situation was deteriorating rapidly due to the Vietnam War, which was spilling over Cambodia’s eastern border. By the late 1960s, Vietnamese communists were using ostensibly neutral Cambodia as a haven to escape American bombing, and a homegrown insurgency that would eventually become the Khmer Rouge was on the rise. These Cambodian communists, Viet Cong guerillas, and North Vietnamese Army soldiers mingled freely in large parts of the country, where they found themselves outgunned and in need of money. Selling antiquities on the black market would have been an easy source of cash, a practice that continues in other parts of the world today. “The trade in illicit antiquities thrives on conflict,” said Davis, the heritage lawyer.
In 1970, Cambodia was plunged into further chaos when its longtime ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, lost power in a coup led by the US-backed general Lon Nol. That year, a young American naval intelligence officer named Larry Serra, who was stationed along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, received some surprising information from one of his field agents. The North Vietnamese had made significant inroads into Cambodian territory and taken control of Angkor, where they were pilfering antiquities and selling them on the black market for hard currency. “Angkor Wat was an easy target because it’s so big and there’s so much stuff to steal,” said Serra, who now works as an attorney in San Diego. The French anthropologist François Bizot also documented the presence of the Vietnamese at Angkor in his memoir of the war years, The Gate.
Serra believes that the looting would have been systematic and not the isolated work of local commanders. “This would have come from up higher,” he said. Despite the area’s challenging conditions, the North Vietnamese had the ability to deliver looted artifacts to buyers along the Thai border, where they would have been taken on to Bangkok. “These guys had experience going down the Ho Chi Minh trail getting bombed 24/7. They had the technical expertise to pull this off,” he said. When Serra heard about the Sotheby’s lawsuit, he alerted attorneys at the Justice Department about the existence of intelligence reports describing the looting, which are now archived in the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The looting of cultural artifacts really offended me, even in war time,” Serra said. (A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office declined to answer specific questions about evidence, citing the ongoing nature of the case.)
Koh Ker is just 60 miles northeast of Angkor, and Cambodians living in the area were well aware of looting occurring there, according to interviews Chen conducted during his field research. They remember seeing statues being removed from Koh Ker beginning in 1970, when communist forces arrived. One source, a local village chief, admitted to participating in the operation. That man, whom Chen declined to identify to me because he feared prosecution, received photos and maps with instructions on specific statues to steal. In exchange for payment, he would help break the pieces from their pedestals and move them by oxcart to waiting trucks for transport to Thailand. “The villagers told me that they had no choice but to loot because they were so poor. They didn’t think about the culture or heritage,” Chen said. However, few could remember specifically which pieces were taken. “They only know that a lot were moved,” he said.
Near the end of our morning tour, Chen led the group down a narrow dirt path that cut through a dense thicket of trees and vegetation and led into a clearing that contained a dilapidated, cellar-like structure. During the reign of Jayavarman IV, the enclosure would have contained nine statues depicting the final battle between the Duryodhana and the Bhima. “It was like a living theater scene,” Lemaistre had told me. When we arrived, however, only the pedestals remained, several bearing the hacked-off remnants of feet and toes — but little else. Of the nine missing statues, only one is accounted for and in Cambodia.
Prasat Chen is just one temple among many in a site measuring 31 square miles. Chen estimates that Koh Ker would have contained up to 100 important, museum-quality pieces. “We have no idea where most of them are,” he said. As we walked back to the bus, we passed through a wooden fence that was the only apparent security measure at the site. I looked around for guards but saw none. Surprised at how exposed the place was, I wondered why the Apsara Authority, the government agency in charge of protecting the site, wasn’t doing more to secure it. When I asked Chen, he smiled at me weakly, as if to humor my question. That’s when it occurred to me: at Koh Ker, there is nothing left to steal.
By early 2012, nearly a year after Sotheby’s had pulled the Duryodhana from the block, negotiations between the Cambodian government and the auction house had stalled. A Hungarian collector of Khmer art, István Zelnik, who was stationed in Southeast Asia as a diplomat in the 1970s, offered to buy the piece for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia. But the deal broke down, with both sides blaming the other for the failure to reach an agreement.
Unsure of what to do next, Lemaistre reached out to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, which in recent years has worked to return cultural objects to Cambodia, often with great fanfare. Embassy officials proposed a bold, unusual move: they would launch an investigation into the legality of the Sotheby’s sale. The Cambodian government agreed, and a number of US government agencies became involved in the effort, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. “I have to say, when the Americans decide to do something, it is serious,” Lemaistre said.
With the US government now fully behind Cambodia’s claim, the dispute headed to court. In April 2012, Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin, head of the office’s asset forfeiture unit, filed a complaint with the US Southern District of New York calling for federal agents to seize the statue. The complaint, amended by Levin with additional information in November 2012, laid out the government’s version of the statue’s journey from Koh Ker to New York, which tracked closely with the information I learned from visiting the site and interviewing sources.
According to the complaint, an organized looting network removed the statue from Koh Ker in or around 1972 and transported it to the Thai border, where it was moved on to a dealer in Bangkok. There, a collector, who later identified himself as Douglas Latchford, a British expatriate with a large collection of Khmer art, bought the piece despite knowing that it had been looted. (In an email exchange with me, Latchford denied ever owning the statue, saying his role in the case had been “completely misrepresented.” He declined to discuss the case further.) According to the complaint, Latchford then conspired with a British auction house, later identified as Spink & Son, to fraudulently export the statue to London, where it sold the piece to a Belgian businessman in 1975. In 2000, following the death of the businessman, his wife, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, took possession of the piece. Ten years later, in 2010, Ruspoli entered into an agreement with Sotheby’s to sell the Duryodhana.
None of these allegations would have come as a surprise to those with knowledge of the trade in Cambodian antiquities. But the complaint did contain one bombshell: during pre-auction research into the piece’s provenance, Sotheby’s had allegedly been warned that it was looted. Citing internal emails between the auction house and a scholar of Cambodian art hired to write the statue’s catalogue entry, the complaint quotes the scholar, widely believed to be Emma Bunker, warning that the “Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ … It is also quite possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back.” It was a damning bit of information that, if true, suggested that Sotheby’s had tried to sell an object despite knowing that it had been looted.
This wasn’t the first time the US government had worked on Cambodia’s behalf to repatriate a cultural object. Since 2003, when Washington and Phnom Penh signed a treaty restricting the import of Cambodian artifacts into the United States, at least 27 pieces have been returned. These repatriations and similar activities, such as refurbishing ancient temples, have helped to bolster the Asia pivot, a US foreign-policy strategy that is redirecting diplomatic and military resources from the Middle East to Asia, at a time when China’s influence in the region has expanded dramatically.
But the Duryodhana case is bigger than those efforts — and has much larger diplomatic ramifications. It has received front-page coverage from the New York Times, and the highest levels of the Cambodian government are engaged in it. According to John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at Michigan University, cultural diplomacy initiatives such as these can win diplomatic favor at a time when the United States lags far behind China in the regional competition for influence. “It communicates respect,” he said. “These types of diplomatic initiatives represent much of the way in which the US pivot to Asia plays out in practice, and over time, their cumulative effect can be considerable.” For its part, the Cambodian government has been effusive in its praise of the United States, with which it has a complicated, sometimes rocky, relationship. “US cooperation on this issue has been very important to us,” said Chan Tani, the Cambodian government official.
But critics accuse the US government of undermining the integrity of the American legal system in pursuit of its foreign-policy goals. “To the extent that these cases are being pushed by foreign policy considerations, this should be a concern,” said Peter Tompa, a cultural property attorney in Washington. “Part of the problem with the State Department pushing these cases is that they aren’t investigated properly. They just seize the property and try to bully the person into giving it up.”
Whatever the US government’s motives for pursuing the case, Assistant Attorney Levin has built a large body of evidence suggesting that, at face value at least, the statue was looted. But even if all of the facts in the complaint are true, there is another, more legally complex issue to contend with. In order for the piece to be ruled stolen in a US court, someone actually had to own it when it was dug up from Koh Ker in 1972, more than a millennium after King Jayavarman IV commissioned its creation.
Since the formation of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, a landmark treaty signed by 124 countries that seeks to limit the trade of illicit antiquities, archeology has increasingly become a lawyer’s game. Tess Davis, an American attorney, was planning to pursue a master’s degree in archeology but enrolled in law school instead after spending two years in the mid-2000s in Cambodia. “I’ve never been to a single temple or sanctuary in Cambodia that hasn’t been looted. I realized that there was not going to be anything left to study if the situation wasn’t addressed,” she said.
Now a researcher with the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Davis, a Georgia native with the faint trace of a Southern accent, works full time on cultural property law, a growing field. She is a firm, articulate advocate for the right of source countries to demand the return of stolen pieces. “I’ve ruined many museum visits for my friends,” she joked over drinks one night in Phnom Penh in August. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, you can see the chisel marks on that piece,’ or, ‘This was acquired in what year? That’s very curious, because there was a war going on then.’” Of the Duryodhana, which she has advised the Cambodian government on, Davis is unequivocal. “There is no legal supply of ancient Khmer art. That’s like saying it’s legal to sell a gargoyle hacked off of Notre Dame,” she said.
In January 2012, with negotiations between Sotheby’s and Cambodia going nowhere, Davis cashed in her savings and bought a ticket to Cambodia to research the country’s cultural patrimony laws, which are becoming increasingly important in cases like this. In order for prosecutors to prove in a US court that an object is stolen, they must demonstrate that a source-country government (or a national people) had claimed ownership of it through its own laws. Davis combed through the crumbling files of the National Archives, part of Phnom Penh’s grand, pale-yellow Art Deco library complex, and discovered a range of laws, beginning in 1900, declaring the country’s cultural objects to be property of the state, with some identifying Prasat Chen by name.
It turned out that the French colonial administration, and later the independent Cambodian government, considered looting to be a problem worth addressing — and for good reason. In 1923, in one of the earliest and most notorious examples of temple raiding in Southeast Asia, a dashing young André Malraux, having just emerged from his early dabblings with Surrealism, traveled to Cambodia in the hopes of making a quick profit. He trekked deep into the jungle and helped himself to some bas reliefs from a major Angkorian temple with the aim of selling them to a museum. The colonial authorities arrested Malraux and seized the piece, despite his argument — echoed 90 years later by attorneys for Sotheby’s — that no one legally owned it when he took it. Although L’Affaire Malraux grabbed front-page headlines around the world and propelled the cultural property debate into the public consciousness, the thorny issues it raised — best distilled, perhaps, by the title of a recent anthology of essays on the subject, Who Owns the Past? — have yet to be resolved nearly a century later.
In the years after the 1970 UNESCO Convention went into effect, Western museums, whose founding principle is the ownership (and display and study) of historical objects, resisted attempts by source countries to reclaim their pieces. In turn, source-country governments, including those of Italy, Egypt and Turkey, became more aggressive in their pursuit of these pieces, using their police to build evidence of theft and filing lawsuits in domestic courts. These countries also began using non-legal means, such as denying researchers access to dig sites and suspending loan agreements of important objects, in order to put pressure on museums that they view as intransigent.
Some museums and their allies have bristled at such tactics. “[G]iving up objects has done little to halt the international trade in looted antiquities, while rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments and impoverishing Americans’ access to the ancient world,” Hugh Eakin wrote in a much-discussed recent essay in The New York Times entitled “The Great Giveback.” Peter Tompa, the cultural property lawyer, said collectors aren’t doing enough to resist source-country claims. “There’s a fallacy that all of these collectors are wealthy and well-funded. Most of them are small-time, and they’re very disorganized,” he said.
Also at issue is whether source countries are doing enough to prevent the trade of illicit objects within their own borders. If they’re not, they have little right to ask for pieces back from foreign countries, Tompa said: “The countries that make these claims — we’re not talking about Britain or France, countries with rule of law and decent legal systems. We’re talking about countries that, if you look at Transparency International, are way down on the list.”
Cambodia says it is doing its best to stop antiquities trafficking within its borders, but the reality on the ground suggests otherwise. On a recent Saturday in Phnom Penh, I visited Psar Tuol Tom Pong, a local market that does a healthy trade in small-time antiquities. (There are similar markets at tourist sites throughout the country.) Popping into several stores around the market’s perimeter, I saw hundreds of objects — ceramic bowls, clay water jugs, spiral bracelets, tobacco pipes, coins and kitchen utensils — crammed into wooden display cases. Caked in dirt and covered in barnacles, they are the quotidian residue of thousands of lives from the Angkor period. Archeologists say these objects, most of which come from gravesites, can fill major gaps in the historical record.
But to the shop owners of Psar Tuol Tom Pong, they are little more than a source of income. “I have people pulling these out of the ground for me,” one shopkeeper bragged to me, in between fielding inquiries from an Asian tourist picking over her inventory. In the back corner of the store, I was drawn to a bowling ball-sized statue of a squatting deity. For $2,800, the woman told me, I could own this bronze Angkor-era Shiva that had recently been found in the northwest. “It’s a special one. You won’t find any others like it,” she said, beaming. On the way out, I noticed a prominently displayed photo of two men, one of whom was wearing military fatigues. As is the custom for Cambodian businesses, the photo was meant to convey the owner’s connections to high-ranking members of the military and government, whose cooperation is no doubt essential for ventures like these.
As the debate over the antiquities trade rumbles on in university lecture halls and on the pages of legal blogs and journals, US law on the subject is still very new — and evolving quickly. Although Cambodia is confident of its claim over the Duryodhana, victory in court is hardly assured. Cases like these can be decided as much on legal technicalities as they are on the facts, no matter how obvious they might seem. In March of last year, a US judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department on behalf of Egypt against the St. Louis Art Museum for the return of an ancient mummy mask, despite widespread belief that the piece had been stolen. “These are highly complex cases,” said St. Hilaire, the cultural property lawyer. “The prosecution must prove three things: that the piece was stolen; that the piece was still stolen when it was imported into the United States; and that the claimant knew the piece was stolen.”
For Cambodians, such legal nuances cloud what for them is essentially a moral issue. “The statue was looted during our civil war. Now, the country is at peace. The statue should be reunited with the Cambodian people,” said Ek Tha, a government spokesman. For a country still healing from the savagery of the Khmer Rouge, which sought to erase Cambodian culture in pursuit of its nightmarish agrarian utopia, cultural objects like the Duryodhana hold deep meaning. In recent years, the country’s rag-tag army has fought a border war with Thailand’s modern, well-equipped military over land surrounding Preah Vihear, a 12th Century temple, stirring Cambodian nationalism — and uniting the country — like few other issues. Even the Khmer Rouge put Angkor Wat on its short-lived national flag. “We are proud of our ancestors, who left a lot of things for us. These objects are a part of our identity and memory,” said Im Sokrithy, a Cambodian historian.
I was reminded of this during a visit to Phnom Penh’s National Museum on a recent weekday morning. Groups of Cambodians and foreign tourists strolled through the building’s breezy, open-air galleries, which contain the country’s best collection of Angkor-era artifacts, including a number of impressive pieces from Koh Ker. Throughout the museum, attendants wearing traditional silk sarongs distributed garlands of white jasmine, which visitors touched to their foreheads as they bowed in prayer before statues depicting the Hindu deities. “These sculptures are a living image of the gods. They have their own souls. We believe that there is somebody there,” Im said.
In the museum’s conservation workshop, located in a side wing with massive windows that opened onto a garden full of chirping birds and tropical trees, a team of Cambodian conservators worked meticulously to restore a hulking lion statue held aloft by a series of pulleys suspended from a metal beam. The workshop, which was strewn with dozens of stone figures whose arms, legs and heads had been hacked off by looters, felt like a hospital trauma ward. Despite the damage, though, the sculptures managed to retain something of their original majesty. The two statues returned by the Met in June had been placed in the center of the floor, their arms crossed solemnly as they gazed into the middle distance, where the Duryodhana would have once leapt into battle in the recessed tableau at Koh Ker. Nine thousand miles away, a federal court in New York will decide soon if they will be together again.