The Smuggling of Ancient Antiquities: Governments and art world urged to collaborate to end illicit trade

'As each statue is returned, we become more united with our history and our ancestors,' culture minister says at landmark international conference in Cambodia

Cambodia Culture and Fine Art Minister Phoeurng Sackona (centre) with US government officers for a ceremony to mark the repatriation of 27 looted artefacts in Phnom Penh, July 2022. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty)

Cambodia’s culture minister has called for international action to help stop the illicit trade in looted antiquities which often end up in the hands of private collectors and prestigious museums.

Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said the trade in stolen antiquities – and their “commodification” on the international art market – not just robs nations of their national treasures, but also of their history and identity.

She said governments across the world and professionals in the art market should collaborate to restore objects to where they belonged.

She made her remarks last week during a four-day landmark conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to the UNESCO world heritage site of Angkor.

Those attending included representatives of embassies and ministries of culture from across south-east Asia, members of US law enforcement, art scholars, and professionals from museums and the international art market.

Referencing a number of recent repatriations of looted artefacts to Cambodia from museums and private collectors in the US and the UK, she said such successes had contributed to “the symbolic healing and restoration of our nation”.

“As each statue arrives back in Cambodia, we become more united with our history, our national identity, and our ancestors,” she wrote in a statement for the conference.

Cambodia is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and used its position to host the conference as a way of drawing attention to the issue.

The International Conference on Cultural Property Protection was attended by participants from all 10 ASEAN states, as well as from eight other countries, including Nigeria, India, China, the US.

Finance Uncovered, which has been investigating the illicit trade in stolen antiquities, also attended.

The repatriation of stolen art has been receiving more international attention in recent years, driven in part by the efforts of countries like Cambodia and Nigeria, both of which have been victims of heavy looting.

Complex Recovery

The process of recovering items is complex. The international art market is notorious for its lack of regulation, thin documentation, and opacity.

Once a stolen relic leaves its country of origin and is sold through dealers or auction houses, proving its illicit origin often takes years of research and the close cooperation of many different players, including museum officials, members of the art market, and representatives from governments and law enforcement in destination countries.

Cambodia has an estimated 4,000 temples, many of which have been the target of rampant looting over decades of conflict.

Phoeurng said this had cost Cambodia and that cracking down on the crimes was now one of the government’s top priorities.

In her opening speech to the conference, she said: “In the past, a massive number of Cambodia national treasures were illicitly trafficked out of Cambodia and commodified in the international art market.

“The extensive looting has damaged Cambodia’s cultural heritage sites and robbed people of their knowledge about their history and identity. These national treasures and their original sites are the soul and source of our national pride that could and should have contributed to providing opportunities for ethical sustainable livelihoods for the people and national development.”

In a statement for the conference, the minister explained the need for collaboration with museums and private collectors. She wrote: “Through our joint efforts, we can have greater leverage when asking private collectors and museums to open their collections and to share their provenance documents.

“In the years to come, we hope a united ASEAN front will help each of our communities to assert ownership of its cultural patrimony.”

Though one of the poorest ASEAN countries, Cambodia has in recent years had great success at recovering its stolen treasures.

Tess Davis, head of the cultural heritage NGO Antiquities Coalition, which co-organised the event, noted that the country “had recently celebrated some of the largest recoveries of stolen art since World War II.”

Just last month, prosecutors from New York’s Southern District held a repatriation ceremony for 30 relics seized by law enforcement from American museums and private collectors, including the Hindu god Skanda riding a peacock, and a four-ton statue of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha.

The relics had passed through a British collector named Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 on charges related to art trafficking and played a key role in connecting looters to the international art market, according to US prosecutors.

Latchford never publicly responded to the indictment and died before the case was tried.

Panel discussion on looted antiquities at ASEAN conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia, September 2022 (Photo: Malia Politzer)

In a panel discussion, Jean Paul Labbat, a special agent with the antiquities unit at US Homeland Security Investigations, said countries hoping to recover relics need to have strong cultural patrimony laws in place. Such laws define, protect and regulate the ownership of cultural objects, from ancient buildings to artefacts dug out of the ground.

“If artefacts are coming out after that law’s effective date, it must have complied with export licences and the customary customs regulatory laws,” said Labbat. “If it comes out before that date we are sort of stuck—unless there is proof that it was stolen or looted.”

Jessica Feinstein, a federal prosecutor with New York’s Southern District, said additional evidence showing a relic had been looted was also often necessary.

Compiling evidence is often like assembling a jigsaw puzzle: Experts draw on diverse sources, including archival photographs that pre-date the looting of a site and examining fragments that have been left behind to see if they may fit a missing relic.

“When you can show that the statue in a museum fits feet that were found on site, that kind of proof can be incredibly powerful,” Feinstein said.

Organisations such as the Indian Pride Project investigate the whereabouts of stolen treasures

Soft circumstantial evidence detailing how looting networks operated, and what years specific sites were targeted, “can also be useful as background and submissive in court,” she added.

Cambodia’s recent successes at recovering its stolen cultural treasures are the result of a decade-long campaign by a relics recovery team that is currently tracking more than 2,000 relics believed to be abroad in private collections and museums.

Led by American lawyer Brad Gordon, who represents Cambodia’s cultural ministry, the team includes some 40 investigators, government officials, lawyers, archeologists and art scholars.

It has compiled extensive research on the missing relics, drawing on files shared from Latchford’s computer, and interviews with members of the looting network that supplied him.

Government representatives and civil society organisations from other countries at the conference also shared lessons from their own efforts to recover stolen cultural heritage.

2021 repatriation of bronze idol depicting the child-saint Sambandar, formerly in the collection of the NGA Australia, to a Tamil Nadu temple, its original owner. (Photo: Vijay Kumar)

Vijay Kumar, the co-founder of the Indian Pride Project, shared a moving video showing the joy of worshippers at the return to their temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu of one of their “living gods”, a statue of the child-saint Sambandar. It had been stolen years before and sold on the illicit art market.

Linking the looting of antiquities to the demand for historic artefacts through the international art market, Kumar said: “When the buying stops, the looting stops back home.”