Plundering of Artifacts Sweeps Asia Officials Strive to Combat Accelerated Trade of Stolen Thai and Cambodian Art
Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 plundered masterpiece.
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 donor.
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 and Pakistan.
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 careful."
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 most."
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 Singapore.
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. …