Plundering of Artifacts Sweeps Asia

Officials strive to combat accelerated trade of stolen Thai and Cambodian art

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.

The pieces are now in the national museum in Bangkok pending verification of their exact origins.

However, art conservators say they are losing ground to smugglers. The most worrying onslaught has come at Angkor Wat, the architectural testament to the golden age of Khmer civilization, now withering in the face of civil war and genocide.

Angkor Wat and Phanomrung are among four major Khmer sanctuaries that were built from the 9th to 12th century and trace the 1,000 year history of the region's spiritual transformation from Hinduism to Buddhism.

ALTHOUGH looting and vandalism at Angkor Wat go back for centuries, the monuments currently face one of their most perilous periods, art experts say.

Before a peace accord formally ending the civil war last year, soldiers sprayed the monuments with gunfire or bizarrely defaced the faces and breasts of the apsaras, heavenly dancers who adorn many parts of the temple.

Today, amid the chaos of a devastated Cambodia, unemployed Cambodia soldiers have also turned to smuggling artifacts to survive.

In neighboring Vietnam, Hanoi and Saigon antique shops are full of pieces carried back when the Vietnamese army, which invaded Cambodia in 1978 to oust the Khmer Rouge, withdrew in 1989.

Western and Cambodian officials say that the growing flow of tourists to Angkor Wat is pulling the site out of isolation and lending an element of protection against pilferage. Next year, direct tourist flights are likely from Bangkok.

However, with foreign investors, particularly Thais, rushing to buy land and invest near the temple complex, Cambodia's national symbol could face the same threat of overdevelopment that has ruined many tourist sites in Thailand, Western diplomats say.

As Angkor's art treasures disappear, Cambodian authorities have begun removing important pieces and looking them up.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is trying to muster international support to save the temples, wants to deploy guards around the temples, but donations have been slow.

"The temples are becoming increasingly sterile and lifeless places as they are being depleted of the gods to which they are dedicated." says Richard Englehardt, who is heading UNESCO's effort to preserve Angkor Wat.

Thai and Western art experts contend that many pieces have been removed and are being stored as a future insurance policy by organized smuggling rings, oftentimes working in complicity with politicians or high-ranking military officials.

In Thailand, officials at the Fine Arts Department, the government's official sleuth in detecting art smuggling, know that a major network centered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is run by a former government minister. Yet due to his clout in official circles, the art conservators are powerless.

"The smuggling rings can go up very high in official circles," says Prince Subhadrdis, the Thai art watchdog. "It's very difficult to try to catch it.

"I always tell these people, `You have a lot of money from trading art objects. Now stop it. Why don't you build a museum?"'

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