Cambodian officials continuing their efforts to repatriate a group of statues looted during the country’s civil war joined the Antiquities Coalition on May 8 for a discussion of cultural racketeering in New York. Led by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, Secretary of State Chan Tani, and Director General of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Hab Touch, the delegation engaged a group of international experts in a wide ranging discussion about the problem of looting and the illegal trafficking in antiquities and told about efforts to return the 10th century sculptural group from the Koh Ker dynasty temple site at Prasat Chen.
Antiquities Coalition team members Deborah Lehr, Peter Herdrich, Katie Paul, and Tess Davis, an archaeologist and advocate of Cambodian cultural heritage organized the roundtable. Experts with broad international experience from diverse backgrounds in archaeology, museums, government, and business contributed to a conversation about global solutions to a global problem. The discussants included:
- Journalist Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times, who commented on his coverage of the
story of the repatriation efforts and how the media has contributed to a broader public understanding of the issues. He and his colleague Tom Mashburg have been in front of the story from its inception, including the recent developments that Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and the Norton Simon Museum in California are returning sandstone statues from the Prasat Chen temple to Cambodia.
- Larry Coben, the founder of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, who gave a comparative perspective with a review of his work in Peru. SPI seeks to preserve the world’s cultural heritage by providing sustainable economic opportunities to poor communities where endangered archaeological sites are located. SPI believes the best way to preserve cultural heritage is by creating or supporting locally owned business whose success is tied to that preservation, a paradigm that could have great success in Cambodia.
- Rory Hunter, the owner of the Song Saa resort in Cambodia, who talked about the importance of an economic component in heritage preservation in providing opportunities for people around sites as well as in protecting them.
- The Ambassador of Cyprus, Mr. Vasilios Philippou, who commented on his country’s experience in combatting looting and how challenging it is for countries facing economic difficulties to fight this global issue alone.
- Cambodian Secretary of State Chan Tani, who agreed with Ambassador Philipou and talked about how governments, NGOs, and committed people around the world can join in the fight to help countries in crisis fight against cultural racketeering.
- Lisa Ackerman of the World Monuments Fund, who endorsed the importance of inventories and accession records to provide baseline data on the material every country has discovered. *
Also providing insight were Sameh Iskander, the President of the American Research Center in Egypt, Joyce Clark from Heritage Watch International in Cambodia, Special Agent Brenton Easter of Homeland Security Investigations, and Robert Murowchick the Director of the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History at Boston University. All commented on aspects of the illegal trade in antiquities.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An summarized his perspective on cultural racketeering and the search for global solutions. He urged all to consider the three ideas he keeps in mind in his efforts to provide assistance – respect for local culture, for nature, and for communities. He endorsed the primacy of international and Cambodian law in solving disagreements and commented that since cultural racketeering is a multifaceted, international problem, Cambodia was pleased to have many allies in the international community, including all those present.
The roundtable discussion was held at the Metropolitan Club in New York. It is the second organized by the Antiquities Coalition, following a March Cultural Racketeering Roundtable at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC marking the visit of Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mohammed Ibrahim to sign a Public-Private Partnership with the Coalition to cooperate in fighting cultural racketeering in Egypt.
*The Antiquities Coalition is currently working with The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities on extending inventory and accession record programs to museums and storage sites across the country.