Tomb Raiders and Returns: Recovering Cambodian Antiquities and Our Collective Culture

The return of priceless cultural objects are among the great many successes the Untied States government and the international community has won in the battle against the illicit antiquities trade.
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It is not often when a federal prosecutor is "knighted," even less common for a prosecution team to receive such royal honors, and quite rare when it happens in America. But that is what happened in Manhattan when the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia thanked the United States government for its efforts to help save an ancient warrior statue from Cambodia from a Sotheby's auction block.

Over 40 years ago, during Cambodia's civil war, looters pillaged an ancient temple called Prasat Chen near the capital of the Khmer Empire and took with them a priceless collection of sandstone sculptures. Among the plundered items was the Duryodhana, a five-foot tall, 10th century sculpture of a mythic Hindu warrior.

To transport the statute, looters decapitated the warrior and cut its torso from the pedestal in the temple, on which it had sat undisturbed for over a millennium. For decades, the statute lay in the hands of a private collector in England. Yet in 2010, the statute emerged -- on a Sotheby's auction block.

At Cambodia's request, the United States filed suit seeking the forfeiture the "illicitly removed" sandstone warrior. And finally, after two years of litigation, the seller agreed to let the priceless work of art return home.

According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who spoke at the Duryodhana Repatriation Ceremony in New York, "the forfeiture action... has already had a salutary domino effect -- it has made other museums and institutions aware of the widespread looting."

Indeed, Bharara appears to have been correct. In what could only be understood as twist of fate, within a week, Christie's voluntarily funded the repatriation of a statute that sat just feet from the Duryodhana in the ancient temple. After discovering the statute had been illicitly obtained, the auction house acted honorably and contacted the 2009 buyer, who agreed to return the piece to Cambodia.

As if blessed by the gods, it seems other related antiquities are en route to their place of rest.

In early May, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California agreed to return its larger-than life depiction of the mythological figure known as the "Temple Wrestler." Though the museum had obtained the statute in 1976 and had it on regular display for over four decades, it agreed to return the figure to Cambodia.

And just last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art voluntarily returned two other ancient statutes from Prasat Chen.

Cambodia may now have its sights set on other figures it claims have been looted from the Kingdom.

The return of such priceless cultural objects are among the great many successes the Untied States government and the international community has won in the battle against the illicit antiquities trade.

Though some lament that legal actions like those against Sotheby's "threaten the very future of collecting and collecting museums," many more institutions and donors acknowledge the harms that purchasing and possessing looted art poses. Not only does it deprive nations of their unique cultural heritages, but the illicit antiquities trade also reportedly funds organized crime, rebel fighters, and perhaps even terrorist groups.

Thankfully, governments, international organizations, civil society and other stakeholders -- such as the D.C.-based Antiquities Coalition -- are coming come together to help fight what might be a 6 billion a year illicit industry, which spreads from Egypt to Syria, to Cambodia and beyond.

By agreeing to repatriate stolen antiquities to Cambodia, institutions are taking advantage of a unique opportunity to right past wrongs and help set the moral standard for the entire field. This is but a first step in what should be a global multi-stakeholder effort to curb the trade in illicit antiquities.

As the World Economic Forum for East Asia kicks-off in Manila this week -- and continues with the New Champions-led OCEAN 14 conference in Cebu Island -- the world's focus will center on growth and development in the region. Part of this growth and development is dependent on tourism and culture, but it is not just a local issue. Let us hope, for the sake of the world's cultural heritage and our collective identity, that other institutions, collectors and stakeholders adopt a proactive approach in the battle against the illicit trade of antiquities. Only by such collective efforts can we help good triumph against such past evils.

Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served at the UN war crimes tribunal and as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-UN Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. He is counselor to the Antiquities Coalition and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.

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