A tainted temple bell from Cambodia?
Jos Van Beurden
Each museum has its own ethical guidelines for acquiring objects. Many museums try to set an example, and the slightest doubt about the provenance of an object will cause its acquisition to be rejected. But sometimes a museum prefers to look the other way. That becomes easier when the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association does not deliver proper advice.
In 2004 the Carillon Museum in the village of Asten in the Dutch province of North Brabant bought a second-century bc bronze temple bell from antique dealer Marcel Nies in Antwerp, Belgium. According to Nies, the 12 inch high bell comes from Battambang in Cambodia and shows characteristics of the Vietnamese Dong-Song culture. In order to be able to pay for the bell, the Carillon Museum applied for and received subsidies from the Brabant Museum Foundation and the Rembrandt Association. According to Nies, the bell had been exported to Thailand in 1969, in 2000 it had arrived in Italy and since 2003 it had been in Belgium. According to the Carillon Museum such bells can be purchased in Thailand without any problem, and permission to export an object like this from Thailand is not required. These bells are sold and sent all over the world. They can indeed be found for sale on the Internet.
The Brabant Museum Foundation was not certain about the acquisition. It therefore approached the Ethical Commission of the Netherlands Museum Association (NMA) and asked for it to check whether the museum had studied the provenance in a credible and careful manner. The Commission finally came to a positive conclusion — ‘in this case illicit trade is out of the question’ — and advised the NMA to give a green light for the purchase. The Brabant Museum Foundation accepted the advice, and the Carillon Museum was able to go forward.
‘What more do you want?’ asks Dr André Lehr, former curator of the museum and responsible for the deal. ‘A prominent dealer and the positive advice of the Ethical Commission!’ Moreover, the bell is according to him ‘not part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia. It helps us to get to know other cultures.’ Lehr produces here his own definition of cultural heritage, as he explained to me: ‘Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, the Borobudur and Angkor Wat, yes those are cultural heritage, but not this bell.’
Yet someone who reads carefully the advice of the Ethical Commission could get an uneasy feeling. To start with, the year in which the object left Cambodia, 1969, raises some questions. It is according to the Commission ‘just before the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which arranges the protection of stolen or unlawfully exported cultural heritage’. The year 1970 is often used as a watershed year: for objects acquired before 1970 no very difficult questions about provenance are asked, but for all acquisitions after that date provenance should be investigated. ‘Although the Commission is aware of doubts that could arise from the accidental succession of the dates 1969 and 1970, it has not been able to find a reason to doubt the information that has been offered by the dealer.’ Yet talking with Nies, he now says that the year 1969 is only ‘most probable’. He is not completely sure, ‘but I am not worried about it’.
A second question concerns the certainty with which it is asserted that no permission was needed for the export of the bell from Cambodia to Thailand. Upon inquiry with deputy director Hab Touch of the National Museum of Cambodia, which is responsible for the issue of export permits, and Etienne Clement, head of the UNESCO mission in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, it appears that ancient objects cannot be exempt from licensing requirements. Based upon e-mail exchanges with both of them, it can be concluded that Cambodia has had, since the year 1925, a law which determines that art objects are only to leave the country with a permit. In 1925 Cambodia was a French colony and in the law a broad definition of ‘art objects’ is applied; thus André Lehr’s assertion that the bell does not belong to Cambodia’s cultural heritage is contestable.
Some experts doubt whether the 1925 law still is legally valid. In her 2004 study Pillaging Cambodia: the Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art, Masha Lafont states that the old laws have lost their validity, since they were abolished by the Khmer Rouge. Thanks to the cooperation of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, however, I have received a message from Tara Gutman, legal adviser of the Council of Ministers of Cambodia, who points to article 139 of the new Constitution of 1993 which determines that laws and standard documents ‘shall continue to be effective until altered or abrogated by new texts’. Lyndel Prott, former Director of UNESCO’s Department of Cultural Heritage and presently a law professor in Australia, confirms Gutman’s interpretation. She writes: ‘In my view the present government may well regard the 1925 legislation as having remained in force and its lack of enforcement during the Khmer Rouge regime as simply due to the factual situation, rather than an abrogation’. In short, the Dutch museum could have, according to its own ethical code, acquired the ancient bell only if the Cambodian authorities had permitted it to do so.
At least one member of the NMA’s Ethical Commission did not share the positive conclusion. This member argues that the museum never should have bought the bell. He ‘would have been in favour of asking the opinion of the government of the country of origin in order to overcome the one-sidedness of the information available to the purchaser’. In the twenty-first century, it is a bit out of touch that neither the Carillon Museum nor the Ethical Commission have done so, particularly since Cambodia has had for years an active policy to curb the illicit trade in art and antiquities and to protect its own cultural heritage. Lafont mentions in her study 17 examples of smuggled objects that have been restored to Cambodia. That should have rung a bell.
First posted December 2006