As a child, Prince Ravivaddhana Sisowath went into exile in Europe with much of the Cambodian royal family when the Khmer Rouge assumed power in the early 1970s. He returned to Cambodia for the first time in 2000. Today he devotes his energy to advancing the appreciation and protection of Cambodian culture. Noah Charney spoke with the prince in Rome.
What is the path that looted Cambodian art typically travels?
The first market for stolen art is either Saigon or Bangkok, and after that it goes to London, New York, or elsewhere.
It appears that the majority of looters are Cambodians who sell the art abroad.
Yes, but I would be very tolerant about the Cambodian people. The preservation of ancient things is not a part of our traditional culture. The average Cambodian would rationalize that if our ancestors made these things, arts and crafts, and gave them to us, it was to ensure our livelihood. Since the restoration of the monarchy in 1993 and with the efforts of UNESCO, especially since December 1995, when Angkor was registered as a World Heritage site, we’ve promoted the concept of cultural patrimony. After that, a deeper consciousness developed among the people of Cambodia, who began to take pride in their antiquities.
How would you advise a collector or museum that wishes to acquire Cambodian art legitimately? I always say that it is best to go to Cambodia. Go to the National Museum, in Phnom Penh, and the Ministry of Culture. Meet with the leading experts to learn where to look and what to look for. In Paris, you’ve got the Musée Guimet and its president, Olivier de Bernon, who is one of the leading specialists in the ancient art of Cambodia. Beginning in the 1960s Cambodia established institutions in which artists are trained in traditional techniques to make fine copies of ancient sculptures. I tell my friends to buy them. I would like artists to go further, to create new things that will go into contemporary art galleries. For such objects, you can visit the website of Les Artisans d’Angkor.
In June you addressed the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art about the case of a 10th-century Khmer figure withdrawn from a sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2011 following charges that the sculpture had been looted from the temple at Koh Ker. Do you see progress in the protection of Cambodia’s cultural heritage?
I’m naturally optimistic, but I’m not completely unrealistic — I’d like to raise the national consciousness about preserving patrimony. But the people are still very poor, and having all these objects available is a temptation. I hope for a cleaner market and greater morality, especially on the part of people who are buying these objects.
Cambodia is seeking to recover a pair of statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What is the story behind this request?
If I remember well, those statues were acquired legally — the trade was made through the last U.S. ambassador in Saigon in 1975. Still, the return would show the goodwill of the U.S. But do you want to know my personal opinion? I would be happy for the statues to stay in the Met. Remember, I came through that very hard period during which we Cambodians were convinced that our culture was going to die. In Paris we were glad to see our art in the Musée Guimet. Whatever American museums have of Cambodian art, I believe they should keep. This gives good visibility to Cambodia for foreigners and for second- and third-generation Cambodians who live abroad. It is a way for the world to see the glories of Cambodia.
What message would you like to send to lovers and collectors of Cambodian art?
First of all, go on loving Cambodian art. It should be seen more broadly and appreciated more widely. Beyond that, I would say please be careful not to hurt the culture. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m very happy to see some masterpieces of Cambodian art in foreign museums. It’s part of the world’s patrimony.