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The Looting of Cambodian Antiquities

Video transcript

[Music] I'm sitting with tests Davis the executive director of the antiquities coalition we want to talk about looting in Cambodia the illicit antiquities trade affects few countries more than the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia which was the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire one of the most powerful forces in Southeast Asia during the antiquarian period which was from the 9th to the 15th century this kingdom extended far beyond Cambodia's current boundaries reaching into what is now Vietnam Thailand Laos and even Burma and they're probably best known for the extraordinarily elaborate stone temples and cities that were built most famously Angkor Wat the Khmer built their capital at encore and filled it with great temples reservoirs stone roadways and bridges and the city had a population in the millions and its crowning achievement the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat really rivals the pyramids and scale it's an amazing site but we want to rewind a little bit and go back in history before Angkor Wat was built and look at a town in what is now northern Cambodia what was briefly the capital of Khmer the site cochair was the 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire and today while Angkor Wat is welcoming throngs of tourists who care is still off the beaten path and we know from early French colonial reports from the 19th and early 20th century because it was so remote it was largely untouched the site is deep in the Cambodian jungle and it was only rediscovered by the outside world in the 1870s the site was so pristine that some of these early French explorers described it as a sort of outdoor museum given how many statues survived intact fast forward to the 1970s Cambodian art started to flood the Western market in the 1970s 80s and 90s corresponding with the killing fields with the genocide with the civil war with the foreign occupation by Vietnam and we're purchased by leading auction houses museums and collectors no questions asked in the case of the pieces from Co care you have these monumental works among the most important pieces in the Khmer canon of art appearing missing their feet broken in pieces from a war zone yet they ended up in major collections and the reason that missing feet are important is that the feet are still attached to the pedestals at this site in 2007 conservator Simon Warwick was visiting the site of Co care and his eye was caught by these two impressive pedestals with a pair of feet the rest of the body cut off at the ankles a work uncovered what seemed to be a fit on display at the Norton Simon museum of art and Pasadena having been acquired in 1976 then two years later French archaeologist Eric Bordeaux no confirmed Warwick's research and then made an additional breakthrough that the missing companion to the Norton Simon piece which match the other fragmented pedestal at Co care was on the opposite coast of the United States and not only that it was gracing to cover of Sotheby's Asia week catalog the featured lot of the event if not the year now Sotheby's should have known better they had been involved in numerous repatriation clansmen and in fact we know from court records that Sotheby's was on notice that the statue was stolen property it's a very expert they hire to appraise the piece warned them that it was quote definitely stolen and that they should quote offer it back to the National Museum of Cambodia as a gesture of goodwill and to save everyone some embarrassment stat of heating her advice Sotheby's put it on the cover of one of their most prominent catalogues with an estimated ticket price of around two to three million dollars and they simply call the sculpture athlete but because we can match the sculpture to the feet and the pedestal we actually have an identification that's one of the tragedies of looting when cultural objects are removed from their place of origin they lose so much of their meaning for example there was no way of identifying this statue or it's made at the Norton Simon museum but once matched to their pedestals it became clear that they were not warriors as they had been described but they were the Warriors Bhima and Duryodhana engaged this fight to the death from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata the sculptures themselves are beautiful and unusual most Comair sculpture is relief sculpture and so these are rarities because these are sculptures in the round they're also enormous and there's a sense of weight and muscularity but still a fluidity that is one of the stunning characteristics of Khmer art originally these two figures would have been surrounded by other figures watching them and this three-dimensional tableau but when they're looted and they show up isolated at an auction house or in a museum display we lose the interaction between the figures we lose their meaning but not everybody behaved badly the discovery of the statue at Sotheby's set off a chain reaction resulting in a major story by the New York Times and the federal lawsuit and this one covered a number of statues that had all been looted around the same time likely by the same people from the same temple at Coker and yet nonetheless made their way into prominent American collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art now to the Mets credit as soon as Cambodia presented them with evidence that these statues were stolen the mat stood up and did the right thing and have since built a very strong relationship with the Royal government of Cambodia that has resulted in loans back and forth and so although the met lost this important object it is now the beneficiary of perhaps even more important ongoing loans one of the real remaining problems is that there is undoubtedly a tremendous amount of important Cambodian art in private collections by far the bulk of antiquities disappear into this black market ending up in private collections around the world and maybe one day they'll resurface maybe they won't I mean we're still seeing looted art from World War two that were stolen from Jewish families throughout Europe just resurfacing today and so you have these gorgeous architectural monuments that are now two-faced due to the trade and art and antiquities we've lost countless knowledge about these sites but the losses go beyond that a site like ko care if it's statuary were intact it would be a major tourist draw and so having economic consequences for Cambodia to this day there's clear evidence that the looting and trafficking of bloody antiquities in Cambodia helped to prolong the war by continuing to finance hostilities and unfortunately because of this demand for looted Cambodian art it's too dangerous to return these statues to their original temples they are going to be kept in the national museum for safekeeping and as I think also an important symbol of Cambodia's recovery after the war this is not just about art like these statues so many Cambodian families were broken up by the war and you have people starting to return today and it's an important part of this recovery to bring home these statues where they belong so Cambodian children can go and see these statues today and learn about their great past and hopefully to inspire their equally great future [Music]