from my 2004 book CAMBODIA, published by Reaktion Books
CHAPTER 3: TOMB RAIDERS
Looting and faking Khmer art
Shortly before Christmas 1923, André Malraux stood in the tiny enclosure of Banteay Srei, Angkor's most exquisite temple. His career as writer, philosopher and eventually minister of cultural affairs in General de Gaulle's government lay ahead. Literature, in which he would become an iconic figure of the Left, was not on his mind at that moment. The purpose of his visit, conceived in Paris some months earlier, was to steal sculptures.
Malraux was up-to-date with the contemporary market in art and antiquities, and it was to this world that he turned when he discovered that he was ruined. Married at 21 to Clara Goldschmidt, he had shortly afterwards invested a large amount of his wife's inheritance in highly speculative Mexican mining stock. A year later the mining company collapsed and they lost everything. Malraux's solution was characteristic of his view of life — instead of pulling in his horns and accepting a bail-out from his father-in-law, he decided to be bold. An audacious plan was what he needed, something that would solve the problem in a stroke, preferably with an element of adventure. He quickly found it in Cambodia.
The basic scheme was to find an undiscovered, unlooted Khmer temple and ... well, loot it. He would simply 'take some statues and sell them in America'. His inspiration was the notion of the Royal Way. As Malraux explained it, the ancient Khmers had built a network of die-straight highways linking the capital Angkor to the provinces, and at intervals along these roads were temples, in much the same way as the road through France 'was staked out with cathedrals, sanctuaries, and small chapels, just like centuries later the Spaniards in California set out the route along the Pacific Coast by missions, one day's ride from each other.'
In reality, lost and ruined temples are indeed linked by this road — or rather roads, for there were at least four, spreading out from the capital. Little remains, except for a few stone bridges and some curious chapels known as 'Houses of Fire'. According to an inscription at the temple of Preah Khan, there were 121 'Houses of Fire' placed at regular intervals along the roads — long stone halls with a tower at one end and windows along one side. The ceremony performed in them is unknown, but they may have been used as staging posts for armies on the march. Those that have been found mark the existence of the road.
The Royal Way enjoys the mystery of never having been fully explored and having, for the most part, disappeared. Malraux saw its romantic possibilities, which because of modern Cambodia's disastrous history are no less today. Although Banteay Srei is now well within the tourist circuit of Angkor, this is a very recent thing. On my first visit to Angkor in 1989, no inducement would persuade the army to escort me there, even in an armoured troop carrier — they had just lost some men to a Khmer Rouge rocket attack on the road. The little temple was a surprisingly late discovery at Angkor. Although only twenty kilometres north of the main complex of temples at Angkor, it had escaped even the thoroughness of Lunet de Lajonquiere's survey of Khmer temples from Siam to Cambodia. Given its popularity with tourists now, this might seem surprising, but the forest was relentless in its recovery of temples. After all, in the hills a few kilometres north of here is another well-visited site on the modern itinerary, the River of a Thousand Lingas, with carvings of lingas and Hindu gods in the stone of the stream-bed, and this was discovered only in 1968. It was an official in the Geographical Service, a Lieutenant Marec, who came across Banteay Srei by chance in 1914.
This made it ideal for Malraux's purposes. It was not actually on a Royal Way, but never mind. It was unrestored and had some of the finest carvings at Angkor, in deep relief in a pinkish-red sandstone from local quarries. In October 1923, he and Clara set sail on the auspiciously named SS Angkor from Marseille. In Saigon they met up with his old schoolfriend Louis Chevasson, whom Clara called 'the colourless one', and the three sailed up to Phnom Penh, then transferring to a riverboat up the Tonlé Sap to Siem Reap. They took horses and guides and rode north.
The trek up the lost road appealed to Malraux's sense of adventure. Arriving at the temple, he organised local help to lift and crate the seven stones that made up the relief of sculpted goddesses. As he later wrote, 'Before him lay a chaos of fallen stones, some of them lying flat, but most of them upended; it looked like a mason's yard invaded by the jungle. Here were lengths of wall in slabs of purple sandstone, some carved and others plain, all plumed with pendent ferns. Some bore a red patina, the aftermath of fire. Facing him he saw some bas-reliefs of the best period, marked by Indian influences — he was now close up to them — but very beautiful work; they were grouped around an old shrine, half-hidden now behind a breastwork of fallen stones. It cost him an effort to take his eyes off them. Beyond the bas-reliefs were the remains of three towers razed to within six feet of the ground.'
Clara wrote, 'We weren't the first to behold it, but we were no doubt the first to see it like this, to have our breath taken away by the grace of its stateliness, by its beauty, superior to any of the temples we had seen so far, all the more moving because forsaken. Seeing only the pink rock face, I moved forward when my eyes caught an emerald snake curled up at my feet [no doubt the highly venomous Hanuman snake]. It formed a gleaming hoop larger than a car wheel. Warned by our presence, it reared its head, which was as elegant as the temple, then slipped away among the stones that might conceal a sculpture fragment. That's how I found myself in Banteay Srei.'
With crowbars, a hoist and ropes they slowly removed the blocks that made up each relief of a devata, but the men from the local village were increasingly sullen and moody. Malraux obviously was not aware of the tale of King Mongkut's attempt to remove the towers of Ta Prohm. Instead, it seemed to him, with remarkable naivety, that no-one would either care or notice that he was removing the temple's most beautiful sculptures. For all Malraux's enlightened, liberal views and anti-colonial stance, he could not shake off the idea that because this was, for him, the ends of the earth, he could simply waltz through Cambodia and do as he pleased.
George Groslier, founder and director of the École des Arts Cambodgiens, had other ideas, and played a major part in their arrest. Of course, their activities had not gone un-noticed, and although Malraux, Chevasson and Clara succeeded in getting the 600 kilos of packed stones back to Siem Reap by ox-carts and then to Phnom Penh by riverboat, they were promptly arrested on arrival in the city. It was only through Clara's efforts, organising a petition among the leading artists and writers of Paris, that they escaped imprisonment.
Both Malraux and Banteay Srei survived the botched robbery and went on to greater things. Malraux became the leading French novelist of the Left, and eventually France's first minister of cultural affairs under de Gaulle. Banteay Srei became the first Khmer temple to be reconstructed by anastylosis, the technique invented by the Dutch to rebuild Borobudur in central Java. Anastylosis was essentially a 'pure' method of rebuilding, using the original materials and construction methods appropriate to the particular temple. It was exactly this pillaging that elevated Banteay Srei to a high priority in the programme of restoration. On Malraux's arrest there was an immediate judicial order requiring a detailed study of the damage, and Henri Parmentier, the EFEO head of archaeology who had so enthusiastically endorsed Malraux's visit a month earlier, began this immediately.
Ironically, Malraux made full use of his experience in his literary career, turning it into the core of a novel, La Voie Royale, the second of his three Asian books. On the surface an adventure in the tradition of Kipling's The Man Who Would be King, it was also an exploration of men's destinies and the need to define their humanity by action — something that Malraux returned to in the novel that established his reputation, Man's Fate. In La Voie Royale, the hero, Claude, has exactly the same plan as did the author, exploring the Khmer royal road to find a lost temple and rob it, engaging the help of an older adventurer, Perken.
Possibly chastened by his three-year suspended jail sentence, Malraux developed his ideas about collecting antiques in a different, more intellectual direction, and in 1947 published his solution to the many problems inherent in works of art in his book Le Musée Imaginaire. Malraux's argument ran that a notional museum could be personally constructed in the memory, aided by photography. Instead of a limited physical collection in a fixed location, you could collect anything you liked and, as a creative curator, make new associations between pieces.
Such a non-invasive plan was certainly in stark contrast to his first excursion into the world of art history. Was this a reformed view from a Malraux who had learned his lesson, or more subtle apologia, contending that art belonged to everyone and that sacred objects somehow gained by being liberated from their original settings? With Malraux it was hard to tell. At the heart of the Musée Imaginaire, however, was the argument that by taking a religious icon from its original setting it was released from the slavery of functionalism. By a form of 'metamorphosis', he insisted, the object loses its original divinity but becomes resurrected as a work of art. As well he might.
In August 1966, Cambodia was preparing for the visit of General de Gaulle. By this time, Malraux had been appointed minister of cultural affairs, and was looking forward to returning to Angkor. But the new conservator was Bernard-Philippe Groslier, the son of the man who had insisted on Malraux's arrest in 1924. Groslier let it be known that if Malraux accompanied the President, he would be on holiday and so unfortunately unable to show anyone around. Malraux stayed behind.
Looting Cambodia has a long tradition, beginning with the spoils of war. Invasion and conquest throughout the region were always followed by a comprehensive sacking, and most things that could be moved, including whole populations, were carted off by the victor. As Angkor's neighbours grew more belligerent and more powerful, it came under more frequent attack. Following its greatest defeat by the Siamese in 1431, the capital was stripped. Among the treasures taken were large numbers of bronze statues, which were removed to Ayutthaya. This, however, was not the end of their journey. In the wars between Siam and Burma, King Bayinnaung, a Taungoo ruler who managed to unite the Burmese for a while, took Ayutthaya in 1564. The bronzes were removed to Pegu. A century later, in 1663, another Burmese king, Razagyi from Rakhaing in the west, seized them. Finally, six figures, including two of Shiva, one of the three-headed elephant Airavata, and three lions, ended up in Mandalay, where they are now worshipped in the Mahamuni Pagoda. Their patchy, discoloured appearance is due to the local belief that rubbing a part of the statue will cure illness in the corresponding part of one's own body.
Officially sanctioned looting also played its part, and in the case of Cambodia helped to found the great Musée Guimet in Paris. The inspiration for this came from the colonial competition between the British and the French. Having established a protectorate over Cambodia in 1864, the French mounted an expedition to the Mekong River, the prize being a trade route to China. It was led by the French representative in Cambodia, Doudart de Lagrée, in 1866, and among its many investigations were the ruins at Angkor. Inspired by this, one of its members, Louis Delaporte, returned in 1873 with his own expedition to collect the finest statues. These, in 1882, became the core of the collection of the Musée Indochinois de Trocadero in Paris, and eventually, in 1927, of the Musée Guimet.