Looting Asia's antiquities
October 26, 2003 2:41 PM   Subscribe

The trade in stolen Asian relics is booming. TIME reports on how cultural sites are being looted and precious artifacts smuggled overseas. Sometimes they're returned, but much of Asia's cultural heritage is being lost.
posted by homunculus (9 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Looting of Turquoise Mountain
posted by homunculus at 2:51 PM on October 26, 2003

A Death in China.
posted by yoga at 2:58 PM on October 26, 2003

Find Stolen Art
posted by keli at 3:14 PM on October 26, 2003

IHT article from August this year concerning cambodian art.

(off subject)

'How Mussolini park ruined frescoes of Nero's palace'
posted by clavdivs at 3:33 PM on October 26, 2003

"much of Asia's cultural heritage is being lost"

Sounds more like it is being found and preserved, just somewhere else.
posted by mischief at 3:44 PM on October 26, 2003

Colin Renfrew, one of the most renowned archaeologists in the world, just gave a talk about this in my department. He discussed the other end of looting, those who provide the drive for antiquities collection, and named names of some of the culprits: The Met, the Boston MFA, and the Getty Museum. These bodies and private collectors themselves, he accuses, not the looters themselves, ultimately provide the funds and motivation for stolen art objects, which is a pretty strong allegation, but well laid out and logical, with the conclusion that to stop looters, the demand must be cut off as well.
posted by The Michael The at 4:24 PM on October 26, 2003

I don't know. When I went to Angkor Thom a few years ago, the place was a shambles. There simply isn't enough money to preserve (or safeguard) the friezes or statues. I find it more heartbreaking that the looters will chisel away sections of decorated walls to sell for small profits than when a large agency or museum takes possession of larger artifacts. It's a tragedy, certainly, but if you were ass-poor and surrounded by ruins that some foreigner is willing to pay you a year's salary for, I think the choice is simple.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:28 PM on October 26, 2003

As you enter Angkor from the one-horse, third-world, dirt-poor town of Siam Reap, you get to a Very Nice visitors centre/gate at which one is obliged to stop. A visitor's pass is issued, a fee levied, but it seems a reasonable amount for upkeep of the park. I was later told that the visitor center is run by a Vietnamese petroleum interest that supplied Hun Sen with fuel during his coup and that this was the repayment. Evidently a very low percentage of the profit stays in Cambodia. A lot of the funds to maintain Angkor are still from EFEO, UNESCO, German and Japanese funds etc.

However accurate that may be, it is only one of many such examples of a “disinterested caretaker in charge of valuable goods”. Hard to keep up a temple when you have a government that looks at historical sites as collateral on a loan.

This type of "acquisition" of foreign antiquities ("that belongs in a museum" to quote the estimable and fictional Indiana Jones) has two sides of course… the Elgin Marbles controversy being one example of ongoing debate. While I am against the expatriation of cultural relics and antiquities on a sort of gut-level “property of the country they are found in” way, there are a lot of examples of the country of origin not being able to care for their treasures as well as foreign museums.

So I guess part of the question is also “are these works the inheritance of Greece/China/Afghanistan/etc.” or are they are also an inheritance of the world? What claim do citizens of the world have on such items? I personally would rather have seen the giant Buddha statues pilfered and stuffed in an attic in the British Museum than destroyed.
posted by i blame your mother at 5:19 AM on October 27, 2003

Whatever you do, do not buy a Buddha head anywhere, ever, antique or modern. That would be step 1.
posted by magullo at 8:17 AM on October 27, 2003

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