Saturday, June 19, 2010

Angkorian Statuary Repatriation: What's Behind the Headlines?

The Seattle Post Intelligencer picked up an AP wire story dated June 17th, pertaining to the repatriation of seven pieces of c. 1000-1500AD Khmer statuary, including "two heads of the Buddha, a bas relief, and an engraved plinth" (photo at left). See here for the Phnom Penh Post's take. The statues were unloaded in port at Sihanoukeville on Thursday, after traveling aboard the USNS Mercy; bound to Cambodia on a "13-day mission to provide free medical care to Cambodians." The article makes some to-do about these pieces being recovered during a 2008 "raid" by US Immigrations and Customs (I.C.E.) agents, on the location they were being held at somewhere in Los Angeles, yet fails to report where this locations is, who possessed them, if they were recovered from private residences or institutions post-sale or were in some warehouse somewhere awaiting delivery. The article notes that, despite the M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understanding) signed between Cambodia and the US (and, I should note, the existence of an I.C.O.M. "Red List" for Cambodia since 2009), numerous artifacts large and small have ended up in private collections overseas. This is indeed true, and ongoing. What I question is whether there's more to this story than meets the eye.

What's missing completely from this article is any mention of this, the "seedier" side of the antiquities trade in Asian archaeological artifacts. A colleague of mine and I have been discussing the possibility that this repatriation came about as a result of the "Robert Olson" investigation, during which official warrant-mandated searches of his Los Angeles residence in 2008 directly led to the recovery of photographs, reference books, receipts, files, and "more than 2,000 bronze and terra cotta artifacts, mostly imported from Thailand, Vietnam, and other South Asian (sic) countries, from two storage lockers..."

The knock-on effect of this raid expanded to his son and daughter, four Southern California museums (including the high-profile L.A.C.M.A., or Los Angeles County Museum of Art), two LA art galleries, and a private collection in Chicago. Although he repeatedly tried to pass the buck and feign ignorance (the "I was just doing what THEY told me to do" routine), he was found guilty and had most of his property and asetts seized. Although 12th-15th century Angkorian sculptures are not mentioned in the list of seized materials, or photos/receipts documenting sold items, the very high profile nature of this return, the bulk and rarity of objects involved, and their recovery in/shipment from Los Angeles does make it seem possible that an unreported connection exists.

I will keep monitoring this situation to see if any more news is released post-repatriation. The welcomed occurrence of these repatriations, however, does not mean that other recently surfaced artifacts, even large statues, are not even now on display in international museums or being arranged for transport. While the deliberate or undeliberate selling of fakes to "satisfy" a private collector would mean one more genuine artifact might remain in situ, or at least in-country where it can be recovered and/or curated, galleries such as Gandhara Galleries (reported about here), should still be closely watched.

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