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AC Interviews Zoe Caselli on Return of Cambodian Heritage

April 4, 2023

Cambodia is home to a wealth of rich cultural history, but unrest led its heritage to be plundered by bad actors for their own gain. Infamous antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford was able to take advantage of Cambodia’s vulnerability during the Khmer Rouge rule and loot an untold number of significant masterpieces. Those objects ended up scattered across the globe, in some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections. 

Many found their way to the American and British art markets. Thankfully, experts in these countries have worked tirelessly alongside Cambodian partners to ensure these antiquities return to their rightful home.

One such expert, Zoe Caselli, is an interdisciplinary consultant and researcher in cultural heritage and international affairs. Recently, Caselli attended a ceremony welcoming some of these pieces back to the Kingdom. The Antiquities Coalition interviewed her about the high-level event and international efforts to combat cultural racketeering.

 Why is it important for the international community to support Cambodia’s efforts to find and recover its heritage?

 To me, it is a question of righting what is wrong. There is no need to go into legal considerations, despite them having a prime position in this matter, of course. First and foremost, I consider that it is the moral duty of the international community to recognize that every country is on the same level and has the right to dispose of its own heritage and for its people to enjoy it where it was meant to be. Cultural heritage is a direct thread to our ancestors, it defines our identity by telling us about our past and, at the same time, by projecting us into the future because of its intrinsic idea of progression. 

Conflicts and times of uncertainty have historically made borders porous and have seen unscrupulous people on the other side ready to profit from these complex situations. The international community should recognize this duplicity and take responsibility for asking the right provenance questions. It should strive not to be complicit in this implicit concept of individuals or institutions from one country being superior to another’s because of their past. 

This support applies to every country that is asking to see its own cultural heritage back to the motherland after it has been scattered abroad illicitly. 

This behavior benefits the counterparts that return cultural properties to their rightful owner, as well. Countries have the opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties. Museums and collections can embrace an educational approach to both inform about past injustices and enhance research exchanges with partner institutions. And private collections, why would anyone want to own something that was stolen in the first place?

What did the recent ceremonial return of the looted works mean to you and what does it signal to the international community?

It meant a great deal, not only to me personally but to Cambodians. The event generated high levels of emotion in the country. It felt like putting pieces together to feel whole. These artifacts are masterpieces to me, and I felt a deep sense of awe to see them reunited with the descendants of those masters who made them. But for Cambodians, it meant having the souls of their ancestors, kings, and gods, once ripped from them, now restored to the motherland. Garlands were offered. People would touch those statues for good luck. It was solemn, but at the same time cheerful. There was also a sense of pride for the accomplishment that Cambodia achieved through international cooperation. It was a celebration of the efforts made and a signal to the international community that the illicit trafficking of antiquities has no place in the future, and that Cambodia is seriously willing to join hands to fight it and see its stolen heritage returned.

How can the public play a role in the return of Cambodia’s heritage?

The market is key. Public opinion is key. The public plays a fundamental role in defining what goes on in the art market and how cultural institutions behave concerning collecting practices. If collectors or anyone on the demand side keeps asking provenance questions about Khmer antiquities and refuses to buy anything without spotless documentation, then the illicit market of cultural property will be curbed. This works not only for Cambodia but for any country. If the public is aware, keeps going to museums asking questions about their collections, and demands that they review them according to national and international law principles, then museum managers will need to consider the concerns of their visitors because those are by definition institutions devoted to attracting the public through their collections. Throughout the past fifty years, there has been a sensible shift in the perception of what is acceptable and what is not. Owning looted art or art without clear provenance is not acceptable anymore, and efforts should be made to make sure that antiquities from other countries can be enjoyed lawfully.