US vows to return shipment of looted Khmer antiquities

Source: phnompenhpost.comews

Wednesday, 03 March 2010 RANN REUY

US officials have promised to continue the repatriation of stolen Cambodian antiquities. Authorities gave examples of items, including this carved sandstone stela (left) and a statue of a female divinity. NATIONAL MUSEUM

Siem Reap Province
AMERICAN authorities plan to repatriate a “very large” shipment of cultural artefacts plundered from temples in the Kingdom, a senior US law enforcement official said Tuesday.

John Morton, the assistant secretary of homeland security for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said American officials are working on the logistics of transporting a shipment of priceless antiquities, some of them very heavy, back to the Kingdom later this year.

“In 2007, we returned small items,” Morton told reporters after a meeting with Cambodian officials in Siem Reap Tuesday.

“For this next repatriation, the items are very large and weigh several thousand pounds. We have to make special arrangements for them to be shipped to Cambodia.”

Morton said the artefacts were large pieces removed from a temple that had found their way into the US.

Cultural spokespersons in the Kingdom have long decried the illicit sale of ancient artefacts.

The items, looted from ancient burial sites or wrenched from important monuments and temples throughout the country, are often highly sought after on the illicit international art market.

“This is international business, and unfortunately, there is a black market in cultural artefacts,” said Morton, whose department includes the repatriation of stolen cultural heritage worldwide.

“It can be very difficult to investigate these cases because the items have been stolen many, many years ago.”

The US has pledged to work with Cambodian authorities to stem the flow of the illegal art trade. An ongoing memorandum of understanding between US authorities and the Ministry of Culture bans the importation of Cambodian artefacts dating back to the Iron Age into America.

Tan Chay, director of the heritage police, said after the meeting that US officials have promised to help Cambodia with skills training and that they hoped to open a permanent office in Cambodia to work on antiquities issues.

Earlier this year, authorities released a watch list of items that are commonly stolen from cultural sites in the Kingdom and trafficked onto the illicit art market. It was planned to be distributed to officials at major border crossings.