Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is Christie's Turning Over a New Leaf?

Perhaps this is nothing more than a PR stunt to counteract some of the recent bad press that major auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have received of late in regards to Southeast Asian antiquities, but this article (brought to my attention by colleague Tess Davis), is worth sharing. It concerns a recent auction held in Phnom Penh by Christie's, in which recently produced pieces of contemporary Khmer art (mostly sculpture and painting), made by some of Cambodia's best up-and-coming artists. They were sold off purely to raise money for the NGO Cambodian Living Arts, a subsidiary project of the Marion Institute.

CLA enjoys a 14 year long history of helping to revitalize Cambodia's "intangible" cultural heritage, and is, according to their website, founded by and maintained by Khmer/ethnic minority individuals; both the masters who teach and the students who take instruction. Their logo above left captures their commitment to teaching both traditional dance and music (instrumental and vocal). Especially commendable to me is their scholarship program for high school-University students (in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture), as well as their commitment to including English and computer literacy to all their students, especially those from remote rural villages. As a 'home grown' way to continue to respond to the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge (that killed off 90% of the ethnic Khmer artists, let alone those of minority groups), these days it appears to be getting increasingly positive publicity and recognition nationally and internationally. It's multi-media Season of Cambodia show will even play New York City in 2013!

Of course, noble charity events like this do not excuse otherwise notorious auction houses of past crimes or current/future transgressions in regards to the selling of recently looted or insufficiently provenanced antiquities. However, their willingness to attach their name to this at least demonstrates that someone in their employ or board of directors is not solely concerned with profits, and I think they should be given the benefit of the doubt re their motives in this instance. Considering all the money such auction houses have made from the wholesale destruction of tangible heritage, giving some of it back to help preserve the intangible (itself arguably as finite as the archaeological record) is the least they can do.

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