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March 1, 2012

Cambodia's Antiquities: Objects on hold pending legal status

A recent article in The New York Times again focused attention on the status of antiquities coming out of Cambodia, a country that changed statehood in the 20th century. Many countries, such as Turkey and Italy just to name two, wrote laws forbidding the export of art or cultural property beginning in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Turkey, like Cambodia, went from an imperialistic reign to a republic and rules were restated to be reapplied to the new sovereignty.

Tom Mashberg (co-author of Stealing Rembrandts and a veteran reporter on the theft of the 1990 theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and Ralph Blumenthal write in the NYT about the current status of an object from Ankor Wat in "Mythic Warrior is Captive in Global Art Theft" (subtitled "Sotheby's Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue"). Of particular note is research conducted by Cambodian scholar Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyer's Committee for Cultural Heritage, who believes that a 1925 law that nationalizes Cambodian cultural property. International cooperation and agreement has been sought for more than four decades under UNESCO's 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

As the NYT reports:
If international legal authorities and American civil courts agree, the law could establish 1925, rather than 1993, as the dividing point after which Cambodian artifacts taken without government permits can be treated as stolen property. Cambodia would still have to prove that the statue was looted after 1925, “a high burden but not an impossible one,” according to Mr. Bogdanos, who agrees the 1925 law “appears to be valid.”
Further information about the sale of Cambodian cultural property through Sotheby's was covered last October on the ARCA blog here.

A recent email from Tess Davis sent to "Friends of Cambodia" requested the assistance for His Excellency Hab Touch, Director General of the Department of Heritage in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MOCFA) to attend the Tulane-Siena summer abroad law school courses in Cultural Heritage and the Arts in Italy this June. The purpose of the trip, according to Ms. Davis, is to "strengthen Cambodia's understanding of its legal options for protecting its patrimony within the country and repatriating those antiquities already looted and stolen from the country."

ARCA has offered material support to the Cambodian contingent, and has offered studentships to interested individuals from the Cambodian Department of Heritage.

The MOCFA does not have a lawyer or other legal expert on staff, nor is there a single Cambodian attorney working in this subject area, according to Ms. Davis: "This is greatly hindering the country's ability to legally safeguard and recover its cultural heritage." Anyone who would like to provide assistance, is welcome to contact Tess Davis at