Since 1997, the US has returned more than 100 antiquities to the Kingdom, thanks to the joint efforts of the two governments at all levels, particularly the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, according to US ambassador W Patrick Murphy.
Murphy was addressing the opening ceremony of a training seminar on the prevention, investigation and documentation of antiquities thefts in the Kingdom, held in Phnom Penh on February 7.
The seminar – organised by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and supported by the US Department of State – was attended by 65 trainees from different institutions including customs and heritage police.
“Despite efforts to prevent the theft of valuable artifacts, illegal cross-border movements continue. Antiquities trade is a cross-border crime involving billions of dollars. Since 1997, the US has returned more than 100 antiquities, and this year more will also been returned,” said Murphy.
The ambassador said that in July he attended a celebration at the National Museum to mark the repatriation of 27 artifacts from the US, in the presence of culture minister Phoeurng Sackona and US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink.
Murphy also noted that American archaeologists have contributed key research that has provided valuable insights into ancient Khmer artifacts, and that many Cambodian experts have studied or travelled to the US to share information and collaborate with those specialists and others.
“The US continues to support the conservation efforts at Preah Vihear Temple and has provided more than $3.5 million for the restoration of Phnom Bakheng. The US has recently also provided grants for community education efforts at Sambor Prei Kuk [temple complex],” he said.
Murphy noted that the US specialists who came to provide the training at the seminar are members of the Cultural Antiquities Task Force (CATF). They come from cities across the US and have significant experience in archaeology, law enforcement and cultural heritage.
The seminar was focused on documenting conservation sites and monitoring them for potential theft.
“The goal is for Cambodia to establish a national inventory system. By the end of the workshop, participants will gain an in-depth understanding of the laws related to the protection of Cambodia’s heritage, including the international legal framework,” he said.
He added that the participants will bring with them the knowledge they have gained by visiting Banteay Meanchey province, one of the most vulnerable locations for antiquities theft and looting in Cambodia.
The training seminar will also help promote collaboration between heritage professionals, and the trainees will learn how to share information on lost or stolen artifacts.
Pen Mony Makara, secretary of state at the culture ministry, said hundreds of Cambodian artifacts and key elements of Cambodian architecture and art have been stolen and sold on the international market.
Over the years, Cambodia has also worked to curb the illegal trade in antiquities, and Cambodia was the first country in Asia to ratify the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
“At the national level, our government has also enforced laws related to the protection of heritage, and through this framework we think it is important to prevent further loss. We can see that although we have made efforts, the smuggling and destruction of artifacts remains a problem,” he said.
Heng Komsan, deputy head of the ministry’s General Department of Heritage, said the purpose of the training is to strengthen the understanding of heritage protection laws and cooperation with other partners in the management of Cambodia’s heritage sites and antiquities.
“We will learn more about investigations and documentation methods, and we will learn about cooperation with law enforcement and some studies related to inventory registration with museums and other partners,” he said.
Catherine Foster, executive director of the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee at the US Department of State, said that preventing trade in antiquities is an important part of the US government’s work.
“We have coordinated with the police, law enforcement officers, the relevant authorities and the museums as well, so we have worked effectively to join forces and partner with the local communities to protect the artifacts,” she said.
She stressed that local communities as well as the government play an important role in working together to monitor and prevent illegal trade in antiquities to ensure the safety of cultural heritage in the whole country.
She said the workshop would establish a registration system to strengthen local communities’ ability to track cases of theft related to cultural heritage, noting that the US has close ties with Cambodia for preventing, preserving and protecting heritage property that was made official through signing memoranda of understanding (MoUs).