Don’t mention the feet! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it. Cambodia looting and academic collusion.

Chasing Aphrodite has a great piece on a fascinating (i.e. ugly) case, in which Sotheby’s auction house’s internal e-mails reveal that it knew it was handling and trying to sell a ‘definitely stolen’ statue. I just want to tease out some of the lowlights of academic collusion in this particular case of illicit antiquities trafficking and trading.

Remarkably, Dr. Emma Bunker, the scholar who affirmed that the statue was ‘definitely stolen’, variously advised Sotheby’s: not to sell the statue publicly; to sell the statue publicly, but not to acknowledge the existence of a crime scene; and to ignore legal advice.


In London in December 1975, Spink and Son(1) sold an anonymous Belgian private collector a tenth-century sandstone statue, a Buddhist temple guardian (Dvarapala (2)), which is now worth an estimated $2-3 million (PDF).

The statue had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker in Cambodia, probably during the Khmer Rouge Communist Party’s brutal dictatorship. Spink and Son’s records are ‘no longer available‘.

Because the Kingdom of Cambodia only declared all cultural property to be state property in 1993, the state had not been confident of its case. So, it had been in private negotiation with Sotheby’s to buy back the statue through a Hungarian private collector. (The Hungarian collector of Cambodian art, Istvan Zelnik, would have bought the statue for $1 million, then donated it to Cambodia.)

Then, however, an unnamed Cambodian scholar uncovered a 1900 colonial law (in then French Indochina), which declared that everything ‘above and below ground’ was within the ‘national domain’; and a 1925 law declared all temple material to be the ‘exclusive property of the state‘. Although it may be difficult to appeal to a law of which even Cambodia and UNESCO were unaware(3), Cambodia decided to assert its ownership; and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a civil complaint against Sotheby’s.(4)

(Un)scholarly behaviour

Before Sotheby’s decided to sell the statue, it consulted a Khmer art scholar and defender of private collectors’ interests, whom the New York Times identified as Dr. Emma C. Bunker (Emma Cadwalader Bunker). Sotheby’s wanted Bunker to write a catalogue entry for and give a lecture about the statue.

(All of the following quotations come from the legal complaint (PDF); I have emphasised key statements in bold.)

Initially (around 1st June 2010), Dr. Bunker warned against a public auction (implicitly recommending a private sale).

[I] do not think that you should sell the Dvarapala at a public auction. The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from PraSat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…. Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from. I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also quite possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….

I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.

Then (on 28th June 2010), Dr. Bunker judged that Sotheby’s could get away with a public auction; but she warned against showing photographs of the scene of the crime, or acknowledging its existence in writing.

here is what I found out in Phnom Penh from my culture spies and museum director….

I think that Sotheby can therefore go ahead and plan to sell the Koh Ker Guardian, but perhaps not good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalogue. I would be happy to consider the lecture again under those circumstances.

When (on 9th August 2010) one of Sotheby’s Indian and Southeast Asian Art officers explicitly stated to Bunker that its ‘legal department ha[d] suggested’ that she should share her catalogue entry with the Cambodian Minister of Culture, so that he was ‘properly informed well in advance’, Bunker recommended that Sotheby’s ignore their legal advice.

There is NO WAY that I can send what I write to [the Minister of Culture]. If this is brought to his attention specifically, now that he is the Minister of Culture, he will be forced to do something, and might not make any decision for months. He has stated that Cambodia will not try to get back the [Museum] piece, even though the feet have been found at Koh Ker. Sending him the writeup specifically would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

(She told them this ‘repeatedly’.)

Still the same day, Sotheby’s officer wrote a record of the contents of their subsequent conversation. Apparently, Bunker advised Sotheby’s to ‘[b]e prepared for bad press. You will get it no matter what you do as you’re selling something so important. If you get bad press it will be from the US – from academics and ‘temple huggers’ not from Cambodians.’

I’m off to hug a temple.(5)


1: Christie’s has owned Spink and Son since 1993.

2: Sotheby’s called it an ‘athlete’, which, as far as I can tell, is an inaccurate description.

3: Cambodia ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention in 1972; but it would be difficult to apply too, because the precise date of the theft of the statue is unknown.

4: This could also be applied to its partner statue, which American antiquities dealer William H. Wolff sold to American collector Norton Simon in 1975, and which the Norton Simon Art Foundation acquired and first exhibited at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in 1980.

5: I found an otherwise-empty draft; it wasn’t worth a post, and I didn’t know where else to put it. The Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP), Tess Davis, appealed for an end to the trade in ‘blood antiquities‘ from Cambodia, ‘no different to blood diamonds from Sierra Leone’.

Davis pointed out: ‘When you look at these vast temple complexes that have literally been taken apart stone by stone and carted over the border to Thailand…. I mean think about this, this is sandstone blocks we are talking about, weighing hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, that is not being done by poor villagers, that would require money and organisation.’

9 Responses to “Don’t mention the feet! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it. Cambodia looting and academic collusion.”

  1. Sam this is a complex case but I’m not sure if your out-of-context quotes of Emma Bunker portray her viewpoints fairly.

    I became aware of the Koh Ker statues when archaeologist Simon Warrack told me about his discovery at Koh Ker in 2007. As an archaeologist yourself, I’m sure you were surprised that his idea was not properly credited by the major media. That’s why I wrote “The Real Secret of Cambodia’s Mythic Warrior: Archaeological Insight”

    Back to Ms. Bunker, she is an art historian who has dealt with Asian antiquities in both public and private collections for decades. Her scholarship has clearly benefited researchers as evidenced by her books analyzing hundreds of Khmer art objects: “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art”, “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past.” The books include private art that, without her efforts to gain the cooperation of collectors, would have remained hidden from the public and from scholars.

    The authors of “Chasing Aphrodite” posted the link below so people can read Ms. Bunker’s viewpoints in her own words. I personally think her views make a lot of sense.

    Personally, I advocate cooperation over confrontation in seeking to explore the mysteries of the past. Thank you for providing a great online resource for this continuing discussion.


    • I, too, advocate cooperation over confrontation, wherever possible.

      I linked to the source article, and hosted the PDF of the complete legal complaint (albeit not an embedded Scribd copy).

      And I quoted whole paragraphs of Dr. Bunker’s statements. First of all, apart from quoting entire pages, I don’t think I could have done any more. Second, I honestly don’t think my quotations are out-of-context or unfair representations.

      I am genuinely curious how I may have misinterpreted or misrepresented these thoughts: ‘The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from PraSat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…. I think that Sotheby can… go ahead and plan to sell the Koh Ker Guardian, but perhaps not good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalogue.’ Why would it not be good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalogue?

      I am terribly concerned to represent others accurately, and to be fair in my judgement. I will gladly create a new blog post for any alternative interpretation of any of Bunker’s statements.


  2. Indeed, having read the full text of the PDF, it’s not at all clear to me how putting this woman’s comments “in context” makes her actions — i.e., conspiring with her millionaire art dealer mates to screw her Cambodian colleagues out of their rightful cultural patrimony — look any less reprehensible.

    I’m glad someone posted the link to the book chapter she wrote as well, which provides a nice insight into the perverse logic used by those at the apex of the looting chain to try and rationalise their position there. I encourage everyone to read it. These people want us to imagine somehow that the world is completely upside down and that the laws of supply and demand have been suspended (my personal favourite is at the bottom of p311: “Anyway, it’s the natives who are doing the digging, not us” … what a classic!).

    Anyone who still needs a reality check about the nature of this tawdry business after reading the US Attorney’s complaint can pursue some further reading here:

    I’m not sure why anyone would try to defend the obviously indefensible.



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