Friday, March 2, 2012

Tess Davis on Khmer "Blood Antiquities" in the US

There are many Khmer artefacts looted in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge atrocities in the US. The audio clip 'Call to halt sale of 'blood antiques' on Australia Network News concerning the Koh Ker statues, one currently in Californian museum and one on the New York antiquities market. Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation talks about the Sotherby's statue. She says she believes the company is still trying to salvage a deal and sell the statue.
"If I were a collector myself I would be very nervous about buying an object who's title was questioned on the front page of the New York Times," Ms Davis said. She said potential buyers need to understand the scale of the crime. "A number of American and European museums and auction houses have been caught with illicit, illicit Cambodian antiquities, many of these were taken from Khmer Rouge occupied areas during the countries long conflict, which makes them blood antiquities," she said. "It's no different to blood diamonds from Sierra Leone."
Ms Davis has an answer to those among collectors applying the 'Witschonke Premise' that countries which cannot unaided stop the looting of archaeological sites on their territory should not be helped:
The Cambodian Government have introduced measures to combat looting, but Ms Davis said the problem is a global one. "As long as there is a demand for stolen and looted Khmer art there will be looting," she said.

And Ms Davis said while it is often assumed most of the looting is being done by poor villagers, this is not always the case. "When you look at these vast temple complexes that have literally been taken apart stone by stone and carted over the border to Thailand," she said. "I mean think about this, this is sandstone blocks we are talking about, weighing hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, that is not being done by poor villagers, that would require money and organisation."
Indeed, criminal organization to commit culture crime. Collectors are often buying no-questions-asked, items supplied to markets by culture criminals.

US law is loathe to help the victims of culture crime, even though US citizens are responsible for the perpetuation of its effects. Ms Davis has recently discovered French laws from 1925 which could help Cambodia prove title over looted antiques. I was struck by her explanation of this (2:06 before the end onwards, not reported in the article): "from 1975 to 1979 most of Cambodia's legal profession died in the killing fields, law schools and libraries were decimated, and as a result, the codes, decrees and regulations that once governed the country's archaeological sites and antiquities were nearly lost to history, but recent research at the national archives in Phnom Penh have unearthed [...] dozens of documents that demonstrate that cultural heritage [...] has long been protected[..], and in particular a series of laws of 1925".

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr.Barford,

    I am sorry I had to comment here saying this but I could not find your contact information anywhere else. I have a story regarding repatriation that I think might interest you as an avid blogger about these topics. My email is Please contact me and I will be glad to give you more information about this story.

    Thank you,
    Gevorg M