In The Shadow Of The Gold Buddha: A tale of illicit trade, cultural heritage and the rightful repatriation of Cambodian art 

Whether presented as a statue, jewellery, painting or prose, the power of art to portray a narrative of history and culture is abundant. But, behind the aesthetic captivation of artefacts donning museum displays and private collections, a much more sinister tale is waiting to be told. 

Indeed, colonisation, war-time theft and complex webs of illegal trade have all served to enable the unlawful removal of cultural artefacts from their country of origin. In an increasingly globalised world, the reproduction of colonial narratives and the endorsement of illicit trading has been at the forefront of discussions surrounding the repatriation of art. For many, these actions speak to more than just a material loss – they represent a grievous erasure of history and continued abuses of power. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country has a rich and varied history, marked by periods of grandeur under the Khmer Empire, to immense suffering owing to external invasions and domestic atrocities. While the world celebrated the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1979, remnants of injustice can be found in the void left by the extensive appropriation of artefacts. Beginning when European Colonists were enchanted by ‘oriental’ art, the removal of such pieces was initially justified under the guise of protection. This cloak-and-dagger approach was wilfully abandoned in the Khmer period, with traders taking advantage of the instability to openly conduct widespread looting for the purpose of illicit trade. For a country painted with tragedy, attempts to restore rightful ownership of these pieces speak to a wider mission of rebuilding the nation’s identity. 

When laid out in print, Cambodia’s right to reclaim stolen objects seems a logical path to justice. Why, then, has this affair been met with resistance? Before delving into the complexities that arise from the repatriation process, let us look at a real-world example, specifically the case of Zelnik and the Gold Buddha.

In 2018, István Zelnik – former Hungarian diplomat turned private collector – placed for sale a small Gold Buddha, once handcrafted for the court of the Cambodian King over 200 years prior. To understand how Zelnik came to be in possession of this piece requires a brief look into his personal history. Zelnik began his career in Southeast Asia with an attaché posting in Hanoi’s Hungarian Embassy in 1976. Zelnik had long since held an immense fascination with the region, and his posting served as an opportunity to build connections with auction houses and art dealers. In 1992, following the end of his diplomatic career, Zelnik turned his attention to assembling what is now one of Europe’s largest collections of Asian art. With over $6 million in investment resulting in an estimated 80,000 objects, the collection now frequently graces private auction houses from Antwerp to Vienna.

Despite Zelnik’s insistence that all items under his ownership were legally acquired, there is serious contestation to this claim. The Gold Buddha, specifically, is one such object. Purchased in 1980 from an (undisclosed) Cambodian official, there is no proof of an official export licence. Indeed, as stated by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture’s legal counsel, the item is “illegally removed”. This appears to be a common theme spanning the collection. Many of the catalogued pieces have appeared on a ‘red list’ of trafficked items identified by the International Council of Museums. Zelnik objects to this though, maintaining that the items – specifically the Buddha – were not historically classified. Given the country’s turmoil during the Khmer period, he argues official documentation was unnecessary. As the collector feels his ownership is justified, he has blatantly refused to return the item. Such actions present a significant hurdle in the quest for repatriation as the process relies heavily on goodwill and collaboration.

This case represents just one instance of illegal appropriation, yet it provides a platform to delve into understanding the vast challenges of repatriation. For one, the lack of official documentation makes ascertaining the origin of historical pieces difficult. If an artefact’s lineage can be contested, tracking the rightful ownership and reclaiming the item can meet resistance. In turning back to Zelnik, the same Cambodian gold pieces have simultaneously been catalogued as from the Angkor period and auctioned as 10-century Vietnamese. This poses challenges for repatriation advocates as, failing to correctly identify origins, claims to ownership remain loose at best. In addition, collections such as Zelniks speak to the wider, dubious criminal networks that enable the trade of ancient items. Indeed, accusations against the trade industry have been lodged on the basis that it facilitates and incentivises both appropriation and falsification. Despite UNESCO passing a convention combating illicit sales in 1970, the extensive nature of the network renders distinguishing legal versus illegal purchases onerous. For countries such as Cambodia, the repatriation process remains riddled with uncertainties, meaning efforts such as banning trade and tracking looted items remain both costly and complex.

The issue of repatriation is far more extensive than the breadth of this article can do justice. Countries such as Cambodia – and the case of the Gold Buddha – represent just one instance of efforts to both acknowledge and rectify historical wrongdoings. The refusal of private collectors, seen also by museums, has been deemed by some to highlight a “continuation of colonial-era paternalism”. In this vein, the call for reparation is a call for wider deliverance of justice in attempts to restore a nation’s cultural identity. In writing an article such as this, the hope is to raise awareness on the much broader issue at hand that is all too often concealed behind a veil of aesthetic art displays. It feels appropriate here to end on the words of Cambodian advocate, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who surmises “heritage shouldn’t be sold…this is the time to correct all wrongdoings”.

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