by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief
The Getty Center's exhibit in 2011, Gods of Angkor, displayed masterpieces from the National Museum of Cambodia in a small room at the Brentwood complex from February through August. But throughout the 1990s, Sotheby's sold Cambodian art through various auctions. Where did these pieces originate from and were they looted or legally traded?
Tess Davis, assistant director of Heritage Watch, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of cultural property in Southeast Asia, published an article, "Supply and demand: exposing the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities through a study of Sotheby's auction house" in the July issue of Crime, Law and Social Change (Springer Science+Business Media BV 2011). This is the abstract:
"Looters are reducing countless ancient sites to rubble in their search for buried treasures to sell on the international market. The trafficking of these and other stolen cultural objects has developed into a criminal industry that spans the globe. For numerous reasons, the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia presents an opportunity to ground this illicit trade in reality. This paper supplements previous studies that have detailed the pillaging of the country’s archaeological sites, and aims to better comprehend the trafficking of its artifacts, through an investigation of their final destination: the international art market. Of course, the global market for Cambodian art is wide, but Sotheby’s Auction House provides an excellent sample. For over 20 years, its Department of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York City has held regular sales of Cambodian antiquities, which have been well published in print catalogues and on the web. These records indicate that Sotheby’s has placed 377 Khmer pieces on the block since 1988—when those auctions began—and 2010. An analysis of these sales presents two major findings. Seventy-one percent of the antiquities had no published provenance, or ownership history, meaning they could not be traced to previous collections, exhibitions, sales, or publications. Most of the provenances were weak, such as anonymous private collections, or even prior Sotheby’s sales. None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally, that is, that they initially came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambodian state and its institutions. While these statistics are alarming, in and of themselves, fluctuations in the sale of the unprovenanced pieces can also be linked to events that would affect the number of looted antiquities exiting Cambodia and entering the United States. This correlation suggests an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s."
According to journalists Riah Pryor and Melanie Gerlis of The Art Newspaper (October 2011) in their article "Sotheby's calls on author to retract looted art report", Jane Levine, Sotheby's world-wide director of compliance, wrote a letter dated August 26 to Davis requesting that her published article be retracted. According to the journalists:
"Levine objects principally to the report's view that that auction house routinely sold Khmer antiquities that were illegally removed or transported out of Cambodia and says 'the paper is devoid of any credible factual support for such serious and damaging allegations.'"
Levine, who spoke on a panel at the meeting commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Convention in March in Paris at UNESCO about Sotheby's stricter compliance regulations in selling antiquities, 'says a lack of provenance, particularly when limited to a catalogue entry, does not necessarily mean the origin is illegal,' Pryor and Gerlis quoted.
In her article, Davis writes that
"Sotheby’s has repeatedly been caught auctioning stolen art and looted antiquities, including pieces from Cambodia. For example, Sotheby’s repatriated two sandstone heads and a statuette to Cambodia after they were published by Looting in Angkor: One Hundred Missing Objects, a 1993 report of UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM), which pleaded for the return of 100 valuable antiquities stolen from the Conservation d’Angkor in the 1980s and early 1990s. In his exposé Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1997), journalist Peter Watson uncovered that sculptures from Angkor Wat had been smuggled into Sotheby’s London offices disguised as “dolls” and “stone torsos,” on at least two separate occasions."
This history at Sotheby's prompted Davis to look at Sotheby's auction catalogues from 1988 to 2010 in regards to the sale of Cambodian art. The absence of the information about the provenance or the history of the objects prompted Davis to ask about the legality of the sale of these objects, a question raised for the past 40 years since the international UNESCO treaty began the dialogue that only cooperation between countries could stem the looting and sale of looted cultural property. In 2006, a PBS show, Illicit Antiquities, featured Heritage Watch discussing the loss of cultural property from Cambodia.
Davis' survey of Sotheby catalogues over more than 20 years found that almost 70% of the objects for sale omitted information about the history of sale of the objects. Levine objects to Davis' observations and the conclusion that such an omission facilitates the sale of potentially looted objects. Levine and Sotheby's could continue the discussion about the auction house's sale of Cambodian art by now providing the information to document the legal or illegal trade of these objects.
ARCA blog caught up via email with Heritage Watch's founder and director, Dr. Dougald O'Reilly, and asked him about the extent of looting in Cambodia.
"Looting is still a major problem in Cambodia, yes," Dr. O'Reilly replied. "The type of looting has evolved from targeting temple sites for sculpture and relief (although this still occurs) to looting prehistoric sites, digging up graves for beads and other artefacts."
Is it important that provenance information be published in an auction house's sales catalogue?
"Publishing provenance is crucial," he responded. "If there is no provenance, it is rather suspicious. It should be part of the auction houses' codes of conduct."
Would I want to know this information before purchasing an object from Cambodia?
"If you were a buyer, yes you should want to know this unless you care little for the preservation of cultural heritage," Dr. O'Reilly wrote. "One of the problems is that collectors often see themselves as protectors of the past, 'it is safer with me than in the developing country it came from' attitude. Clearly this is a neo-colonialist, out-dated and arrogant point of view but it is always the argument brought to bear. The British government have used it for decades in regard to the Parthenon marbles. Why have they not been returned when there is a state-of-the-art facility in Athens to house them?"