Supply and demand: exposing the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities through a study of Sotheby's auction house

Davis, T. (2011), ‘Supply and demand: exposing the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities through a study of Sotheby’s auction house’, Crime, Law and Social Change 56 (2), 155-174.

Looters are reducing countless ancient sites to rubble in their search for buried treasures to sell on the international market. The trafficking of these and other stolen cultural objects has developed into a criminal industry that spans the globe. For numerous reasons, the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia presents an opportunity to ground this illicit trade in reality. This paper supplements previous studies that have detailed the pillaging of the country’s archaeological sites, and aims to better comprehend the trafficking of its artifacts, through an investigation of their final destination: the international art market. Of course, the global market for Cambodian art is wide, but Sotheby’s Auction House provides an  excellent sample. For over 20 years, its Department of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York City has held regular sales of Cambodian antiquities, which have been well  published in print catalogues and on the web. These records indicate that Sotheby’s has placed 377 Khmer pieces on the block since 1988—when those auctions began—and 2010. An analysis of these sales presents two major findings. Seventy-one percent of the antiquities had no published provenance, or ownership history, meaning they could not be traced to previous collections, exhibitions, sales, or publications. Most of the provenances were weak, such as anonymous private collections, or even prior Sotheby’s sales. None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally, that is, that they initially came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambodian state and its institutions. While these statistics are alarming, in and of themselves, fluctuations in the sale of the unprovenanced pieces can also be linked to events that would affect the number of looted antiquities exiting Cambodia and entering the United States. This correlation suggests an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s.