Cambodia’s Artifact Search Won’t End With Informant’s Death

Cambodian officials say a reformed looter who looted Khmer-era temples for two decades and ruled a ring that ended in the late 1990s has died, but they will continue to use his testimony as they work to reclaim more stolen artifacts.

The 62-year-old man, Toek Tik, has spent the past two years briefing authorities on his activities as he tries to help them retrieve hundreds of statues and other relics, many of which he says are personally looted and many of which are now in private hands. and museum collections.

Based, in part, on Toek Tik’s testimony and evidence such as pedestals, pedestals, and broken statue ruins found in places he says he looted, Cambodia recently asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art to document how he obtained 45 “extremely important” Khmer items that were part of his collection. The Met is meeting with Cambodian officials and said it has begun “proactively” researching its collection regardless of the recent request.

His family said that Toek Tik, nicknamed Aslan, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, died on November 29 after contracting the coronavirus. He assisted Cambodian authorities in their efforts to recover artifacts by revisiting overgrown temples and entering hidden cavities where objects once stood in search of remains that would provide evidence of the items’ origin.

Hab Touch, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said, “We are deeply saddened by the death of Lion. He is one of the most important witnesses of our work to collect evidence of the loss of Cambodian cultural heritage and demand its return to its rightful owners, the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

Realizing the seriousness of Toek Tik’s illness, Cambodian archaeologists and lawyers documented his descriptions through multiple excavations and by videotaping hours of conversations in which he explained in detail how he removed the statues and statues.

“Fortunately, before he died, he shared with us numerous site names, dates, maps, and descriptions of looted items and introduced us to many of the former looters we were in contact with,” said American lawyer Bradley J. Gordon. Who represents Cambodia?

Inside Interviews with The TimesToek Tik recently described how, from 1977 to 1997, Cambodia, under decades of genocide and insurgency, systematically targeted temples and shrines in the nation’s forests and jungles and fed the looted statues to traders and brokers.

While Toek Tik says he and his gang rarely receive more than a few hundred dollars for the items they mined, many have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars through Thai brokers.

In an interview with The Times, Toek Tik said he regretted what he had done and hoped to redeem himself. “I regret what I did,” he said through a translator. “I want the gods to come home.” Toek Tik’s testimony has so far led to the recovery of sculptures from the Denver Museum of Art and private collectors, and has been cited in court documents by the Justice Department.

The father of eight, Toek Tik, who grew up in a poor village 100 miles south of the Thai border, said he was affected by the Khmer Rouge as a teenager in the 1970s and was forced to take part in death squads. He said he fled the Khmer Rouge around 1977 and discovered many abandoned temples while hiding in the forest. After learning that he could trade relics for foreign currency, he made a career in it.

Mr. Gordon, who has known Toek Tik for nearly ten years and described him as a close friend, said that he was disturbed by Toek Tik’s actions during the Khmer Rouge era and the devastating effects of their looting.

“There is a strong belief among Cambodians that looting is a cursed business and that possession of looted objects only leads to bad luck and trouble,” said Mr Gordon.

Speaking of Toek Tik’s help in finding forensic evidence of the looting, archaeologist Phin Samnang from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said, “Lion was very helpful in the excavations by taking us to the pedestals of the statues inside the rooms. His instructions are very clear and help prove that our statues have been looted.”

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