Friday, August 20, 2010

Focus, Special Report: Art Crime in Cambodia

Through the online Museum Security listserv, I've come across this video (here), a newscast from the Focus program, hosted by the France 24 International News network. Centering around the recent return of several pieces of Khmer statuary to Cambodia from the US, under the auspices/pomp and circumstance of the US State department, the video then goes further, discussing some more recent thefts, such as those now occurring from active Buddhist monasteries throughout SE Asia. An excellent teleconference interview is then conducted with Christopher Marinello, of the Art Loss Register in London.

In regards to the ongoing theft of early Historic and Angkorian statuary from more remote outlying temples, Mr. Marinello makes the good, but entirely obvious point that it's all about following the money. People coerced into looting believe they'll be automatically lifted out of poverty forever by the middlemen who con them, private dealers will pay millions and spend inordinate amounts of time planning "thefts to order," and the local law enforcement in many countries, including Heritage Police in Cambodia, are unfortunately still quite underfunded in response. As the video highlights well, the flow of money and artifacts these days is not merely from poorer non-Western countries to richer Western countries, but is transnational in the broadest sense of that word.

In my opinion, resources like the Art Loss Register can be a meaningful aid in the recovery of those large pieces that would most likely eventually be noticed to be missing (if, as noted, individuals and countries come forward to report the thefts), but much less effective in dealing with the no-questions asked antiquities trade that continue to fuel the destruction of prehistoric sites in Cambodia (and elsewhere). I have heard tell via online contacts that a "registry" system was proposed to the members of various dealer and "responsible" collector groups as a way to better sort those licit items in circulation for decades from those recently surfaced, but I have yet to see or hear of any initial implimentation of this idea. All in all, I commend France 24 International News for airing this expose and helping to give more exposure to the looting problem in Cambodia, but would've liked to have seen a segment detailing the threat to prehistoric sites, from which followers of this blog (and Heritage Watch) would know the majority of artifacts come from.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scrambled Eggs?

Previously, it was reported on the Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues blog (here) that a dinosaur egg "collected in the Henan province in China and (was) valued at $1,700" was stolen from the Otago Museum last week. The original reporter was asked by an independant observer if the thief or thiefs also happened to steal any export licence paperwork associated with this find, to demonstrate that it legally left China, but at the time of this writing, the answer to this question is not known. The answer is relevant, as if affirmative, it would both increase the likelihood that the egg entered the museum's shop by legal channels (perhaps sold as an excess 'common' specimen from the acquisition of an old excavation assemblage), and make it easier for the thief to sell to any "responsible" dealers.

Now The Southland Times reports (here) that a "52 year old Invercargill artist" has been arrested and charged in relation to the theft of the egg, which was very well recorded by the museum shop's video cameras. Apparently, the perpetrator was also brought up on unrelated shoplifting charges, and returned the egg (voluntarily?) after two days, leaving it in a shopping bag at the museum reception desk. This seems like a very basic and spur of the moment robery...probably done merely to pay off some minor debts, as without official collecting history paperwork and export license, no responsible dealer, gallery or auction house should touch it. Much the same as what should be done to perform due diligence on any suspect archaeological infrequent and incomplete process at best.