There had been one earlier high-profile theft of a Khmer carving, and its later recovery. This was the famous lintel of Prasat Phnom Rung, just across the border in Thailand, near the edge of the Dangreks. In 1960, restoration work was about to start at this important hill-top temple, a major reconstruction that was not completed until 1988. The lintel at the entrance to the central complex was a particularly fine relief of the god Vishnu reclining on a dragon-like serpent, floating in the Ocean of Milk, and in preparation for the re-building it was placed on the ground, like the other lintels.
It disappeared. There was no trail, at least none that the police followed. There were rumours, including a sighting of a US military helicopter, but nothing that could be substantiated. And that seemed to be that, until 1973, when Prince Subhadradis Diskul, a senior Khmer scholar, by chance visited an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. And there the lintel was. This should have been a simple matter to deal with, but it had been acquired from the James Alsdorf collection and the museum stalled, believing it had acted legitimately. The Thais were furious, and the Phra Narai (the Thai name for Vishnu) soon became a national cause.
Thai pride can be persistent, and the call for the lintel's return was taken up across the country, more stridently as the years passed and the restoration of the temple neared completion. Even Thailand's leading pop group Carabao got in on the act with a hit record called Thaplang (Lintel). The disc's cover was a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding the stolen lintel, and the key line in the song went 'Take back your Michael Jackson, just give us our Phra Narai!'
Still the Art Institute of Chicago refused to budge, on the grounds that 'Italy doesn't ask for the Mona Lisa back'. It was 1988 and Phnom Rung was almost ready to open after its lengthy restoration. At this point an American academic from Chicago, Allan Drebin, happened to be teaching a graduate course in Thailand and learned of the dispute. The museum's reaction affronted him. 'After seeing, I was outraged', he said, and on his return set about negotiating with the museum. By arranging for the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, of which he was director, to donate the equivalent value to the museum, all the feathers were smoothed down, and within a few months the lintel was returned. The circumstances of the theft were never uncovered, although locals like to claim that all of the people involved eventually suffered violent deaths.
At the Phnom Penh museum, Bertrand Porte had been making some interesting discoveries. 'Come and look at this', he said, leading me through the workshop, where a team of Cambodians and a French internee were working on various artefacts with scalpels and other tools, to a storeroom behind. On a low wooden trolley stood a stone torso, its head lying by the side. These two pieces had been returned from the United States with some fanfare — another piece of Khmer patrimony restored. Except that something was odd about this supposedly eighth-century sculpture.
'The torso is good. No-one questioned its authenticity. But just look at the carving of the head.' I didn't need to be an expert (and I'm not) to see that the quality of the carving and the expression were both low-grade.
'And the decoration of the chignon is all wrong. There's nothing like that from any period'.
Even so, it was with some nervousness that Bertrand recommended cutting into the head. These two pieces could have fetched in the order of US $100,000, and the operation would destroy that possibility. A band about a centimetre deep and five centimetres wide was removed from the right cheek around the side of the head, like a flap of skin. Indeed, it was skin of a kind, because although the core was rock, the exterior was mortar.
'This is about the best stone mortar I've ever seen', remarked Bertrand. 'They took finely ground sandstone, added an epoxy resin and some pigment. But look at that patina. It's wonderful. So subtle and natural'. Every expert who had examined the piece thought it was carved stone; instead, it had been moulded over a roughly hewn block.
'I'm still waiting for the analysis, but it looks as if they applied the patina fresco. And the mixture is extremely hard.'
Needless to say, the torso also was modelled in stone mortar. What Bertrand could not understand was how someone with the skill to create such a handsome torso, with the musculature and the slight stomach bulge so beautifully rendered, could also create such an incompetent head. If the fakers had simply not bothered to do a head, no-one would have discovered the fraud. Stone is the ideal medium for this kind of deceit, because it is pointless trying to date it. All stone has its geological age, and that is that. A sandstone sculpture may have been made yesterday, but its material is still, say, forty million years old. Only the subtleties of the surface treatment give it away: the trace of a modern tool, perhaps, or a stylistic mistake.
I was intrigued by who these fakers were. The looters and smugglers, of course, were criminals of one kind or another, with statues and lintels just a commodity, interchangeable with drugs, teak logs and arms, but the people who fashioned Khmer art anew definitely have skill. As I learned, it is a grey area. Representing the more acceptable face of faking was Yas. When I first met him, he worked at the back of a small shop in Bangkok's Soi 3, close to the Grace Hotel of dubious reputation. With permed hair, a gold earring and a rather studious manner, Yas was a highly talented sculptor, but unfortunately in a country which does not value original modern art highly. Craftsmanship yes, individual creative expression no.
With no formal training, Yas was an apprentice at a well-known antique shop, where he spent most of his time making stands and bases for ancient artefacts. Except that many were little older than his mounts. 'Dealers used to bring in all these fakes to be mounted', he recalled. 'They'd tell me they were real, but I thought I could make better ones.' In his spare time he practised, and soon discovered his talent. He studied Khmer art of the Angkorean period and, armed with all the references he could find, began producing exquisite copies of statues and fragments in stone.
When I visited him he was squatting on the floor of the backyard chipping away at a torso in the style of the Bapuon, an art book next to it open at a photograph of a remarkably similar piece. Similar but not exact: Yas' had the intelligence and skill to insert his pieces within the known body of work, not as direct imitations.
Had Yas lived and worked in the eleventh century, his sculptures would have been among the best of the period. Dr. Piriya Krairiksh, one of Thailand's leading art historians, became familiar with his work, praising their excellence. 'Yas is not a slavish copier. He makes creative copies that are technically superb and capture the proper expression as well.' The problem is that his sculptures are among the best of the period, and are now distributed among museums and private collections around the world. Three of his heads have even graced the cover of Arts of Asia, a leading art magazine.
Yas claimed that he sold his Khmer sculptures as reproductions, but he was well aware of what happened to them. Indeed, he went to considerable trouble to make them appear authentic, including sometimes breaking off the head. He shipped the stone from the same geological formations in the Dangrek Mountains from which the great temples were built (the abandoned quarries are still there). He had a chemical patina of his own invention. The final touch was for Thai dealers to take the pieces to the border area, from where they would re-emerge as having been looted from a Cambodian temple.
Now you could argue that people like Yas are protecting the real stuff by satisfying a part of the market. On the other hand, they may simply be keeping the market more active. Yas himself is clearly ambivalent on the matter. Possibly as a sop for his conscience, he has always 'signed' his pieces. His name in Thai script is short and decorative, and he works it into every sculpture in a hidden way. In some he has woven it into the complex chignon, in others on a tiny slip of paper, tightly rolled and inserted into a hole bored into the base — and then sealed.But then there was Sunthorn, who certainly did not sign his pieces. In the flurry of activity that followed Claude's uncovering the Banteay Chhmar thefts, promises of co-operation were made between the Cambodian and Thai armed forces and police. In Ayutthaya, the Thais raided the house and workshop of a well-known local sculptor and artist, the 62-year old Sunthorn Sowapee. For many years he and his sons had been making reproductions, increasingly of Khmer pieces to supply the growing demand in the antique shops of the capital. Like Yas, his craftsmanship was exceptional. The head of the local Fine Arts Department office who led the raid said, 'He is one of the best stone-carvers in Thailand. Maybe there are three or four people who can do work like Sunthorn.'
But there was more at the house than just Sunthorn's handiwork. There were stolen originals too, and when the police began dredging the ponds scattered about the property, and digging in the rice fields, they found more than 500 ancient artefacts, many of them from Cambodia. One of the family's techniques was to take a real fragment and extend it, carving a new body, for example, to attach to a head. Over a period of thirty years, Sunthorn had built up such a position of authority and trust within this murky business that he was able to act as a middleman between the looters and the dealers. The police strongly suspected that at least some of the Banteay Chhmar hoard was on its way to him.
Ultimately though, the problem lies back in Cambodia. The Thais are certainly predatory enough to take advantage of the situation, but the big thefts have the blessing of some powerful people. The vaunted co-operation between the armed forces of the two countries is marvellously hypocritical. Claude's efforts on behalf of UNESCO to get the authorities in Phnom Penh to step up the level of protection are seriously hampered by this. 'It's especially difficult', he said, 'as everybody knows that the Khmer army is doing or involved in these thefts.' The new, safer route for smuggling is by sea to Singapore, from where artefacts can be shipped easily to Thailand or anywhere. Particularly laughable in the Cambodian-Thai accord of 1999 was the comment by the Thai Supreme Commander, 'There will be no joint naval patrols as the Cambodian navy is not yet ready.' No-one is holding their breath.
The rewards are just too high, at least for the big boys. At the sharp end of the business, however, the men who do the hacking and the gouging see very little reward, if any at all. As the Banteay Chhmar investigation lumbered along, witnesses reported seeing a few hundred soldiers working with heavy machinery, and in a military operation like this, the state pays the wages. For the freelancers, things are hardly better. Roger and I visited the police station at Siem Reap to photograph some recovered heads of giant demons, stolen from one of the causeways at Angkor Thom. The local equivalent of the public prosecutor had decided it would add to the occasion to parade some twenty convicts as well, all serving between six and ten years for robbing the temples. Shackled, they were led in to the room containing the heads and made to squat in front of the stones. They had stood to gain the equivalent of about ten dollars for their work. It wasn't quite what I had expected for this photo opportunity, but I went ahead anyway, and squatted opposite the prisoners to photograph them. Their eyes were fixed on the floor ahead of them, expressionless, but I could imagine the humiliation and sensed the resentment. I finished photographing these grim-looking characters and we left the station. Roger muttered, 'I wouldn't like to be around here when they get out.'