Keep Michael Jackson. Give us back Phanomrung.
- Song by Thai rock band, Carabao
ATOP a scrubby mountain overlooking northeast Thailand's arid
plains, a cherished work of art has come home.
Daily, bus loads of tourists and clusters of orange-robed monks
pause at the main door of an ancient temple to gaze on the
intricately carved lintel which only four years ago, was the toast
of Thailand and an international cause cbre.
The bas-relief lintel, believed stolen in the 1960s amid the
turmoil of the Vietnam War, was discovered thousands of miles away
in the Art Institute of Chicago, the unwitting recipient of a
Celebrated in song and coveted as an emblem of Thai cultural
pride, the stolen art piece was finally returned in 1988 after an
orchestrated campaign and much embarrassment to the museum and
While the Phanomrung debacle ended happily, the theft
spotlighted the rampant degradation of archeological sites and an
accelerating trade in stolen artifacts sweeping Southeast Asia,
Thai and Western art experts say.
Political turmoil in Burma and years of war and upheaval in
Cambodia have flooded the black market in the Thai capital of
Bangkok with priceless artifacts plundered from Angkor Wat and
other architectural jewels in the region.
Singapore, which as a free port has no restrictions on the sale
of stolen art pieces, is luring treasures from as far away as China
Pointing out Southeast Asia as a region to watch, museums in the
United States and some other Western countries are undertaking
acquisitions with more caution and investigation, Thai and Western
art experts say.
"Some large museums have agreed not to accept any donation
without a clear origin," says Prince Subhadradis Diskol, a doyen of
Thai culture who discovered the Phanomrung lintel in the Chicago
Art Institute and was instrumental in its return. "Museums are more
Yet, beyond the large institutions is a thriving market of
smaller museums, ignorant investors, and rapacious collectors ready
to pounce on Asian artifacts plundered, oftentimes by poor peasants
or in collusion with high officials.
"There is a heightened awareness and ethical consideration in
buying a piece," says Constance Lowenthall of the International
Foundation for Art Research, a New York-based information
clearinghouse for collectors.
"Unfortunately, the museums are the most sophisticated of
consumers," she says. "There are many collectors who don't ask the
right questions. They are destroying the civilizations they admire
Officials committed to protecting regional art treasures have
stepped up scrutiny in recent years and scored some successes. In
February, Pakistani airport security nabbed five people, including
a flight attendant, attempting to smuggle 11 Buddha statues to
The figures, depicting various stages of the Buddha's life, were
stolen from a museum in Taxila that contains relics of one of the
world's oldest Buddhist civilizations.
That same month, Thai officials intercepted an Australian
salvage vessel carrying more than 10,000 art pieces hauled up from
sunken ships in the Gulf of Thailand. The artifacts were
confiscated even though the ship was captured outside the 12 miles
of Thai territorial waters.
Last year, Thai border police intercepted a truck loaded with 12
giant statues most likely from a temple in the Angkor Wat complex
and another Cambodian monument closer to the Thai border. …