Monday, December 16, 2013

For those Bold Enough to Stand Up Against the US Government....

Sotheby's agreement to drop its efforts to contest the forfeiture of a Khmer Statue to Cambodia leaves several questions that will still need to be addressed in any subsequent forfeiture action relating to Khmer antiquities.

1.  To prevail, the government still must be able to link the artifact in question to a specific site within the confines of modern Cambodia.  That was done here, but it's unclear to CPO whether that could be done with respect to all the other Khmer artifacts the Cambodians and their supporters in the US Cultural bureaucracy and archaeological communities may have their sights on.

2.  If that is done, the government must then either be able to point to an illegal import or prove that the artifact was stolen under a foreign cultural patrimony law that vested clear title to Cambodia.  This issue was raised, but again not conclusively decided in the Sotheby's case.

3.  There is also the issue whether Cambodia consistently applies such law at home. For example, during discussions about a renewal of a MOU with Cambodia, it was disclosed that at least one high Cambodian government official has a collection of similar antiquities.  If so, how can the U.S. Government claim all such antiquities are Cambodian state property?

4.  It now appears that the Khmer Rouge may have sold the Koh Ker statue.  If so, doesn't that also undercut any Cambodian Government claim to the statue?  As abominable a regime as the Khmer Rouge was, it was also considered the lawful Government of Cambodia for a time. So, if an artifact was sold by the Khmer Rouge, the "lawful rulers" of Cambodia, how could it be considered "stolen" now?

5.  What part did the US State Department and its Cultural Heritage Center play in convincing the Department of Justice to take the Sotheby's case and in funding groups like Heritage Watch which have pressed for repatriation of Khmer artifacts?   To the extent such claims are "ginned up" by the State Department rather than the Cambodians themselves, that would presumably have some impact on a jury's views of the matter.

There will, of course, be a concerted effort to pressure other museums and perhaps collectors to give up similar art works without a fight.  That may very well happen given the cost and difficulties private parties face when going up against the U.S. Government.  There is also the issue of whether the current owner of the artifact is willing to take heat in the press, let alone the archaeological blogosphere.  So to put up a fight, one needs not only to be well funded, but to have considerable intestinal fortitude as well. Still, for those bold enough to fight, the relevant issues have not been conclusively decided.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Mr. Barford apparently does not believe in Christmas truces. Instead, he suggests merely because I've made an observation about the Khmer Rouge's rights to dispose of Cambodian Cultural Property as they saw fit during their reign, I somehow condone doing business with them. Well, if that is so, perhaps Heritage Watch and all the rest pressing the Cambodian Government's case should reflect on the fact that Cambodia's leader since the fall of the Khmer Rouge is a former Khmer Rouge commander himself, who defected to the Vietnamese and rode to power on a Vietnamese tank. Indeed, the closeness between the old regime and the new one can be seen by the fact that a war crimes tribunal funded by the West meant to bring Khmer Rouge killers to justice has gone nowhere.

Cultural Property Observer said...

For more on the Cambodian war crimes tribunal and the corruption and mismanagement that have hampered its work, see this buried in the Federal Register on Christmas Day: