Culture Lust by Angela Carone
The items under investigation in last week's raid at the Mingei International Museum are from Thailand, specifically from the Ban Chiang culture and excavation site, which dates back to 1000 B.C.. In fact, most of the looted art in Southeast Asia goes through Bangkok, according to Terressa Davis, a law student at the University of Georgia who specializes in international law regarding cultural heritage and preservation. "A lot moves through Thailand, it's a mecca of collectors and high end galleries showing a lot of looted art from places like Cambodia and China. As a result, there is a lot of money going into Thailand because of the antiquities trade."
So how did Robert Olson, the art smuggler identified in the investigation, get antiquities from Thailand through U.S. Customs and into the United States? Enough to antiquities to maintain a warehouse of stolen goods? There are a number of ways this happens, according to Davis. Sometimes the items are painted over to look like replicas. Other times they are just designated as reproductions by the sellers. This following is an exchange that took place during a recorded conversation between a reporter and a dealer in River City, a high end shopping mall in Bangkok stolen antiquities are sold:
There are reasons why it is easier to move looted antiquities through Thailand than it is other countries in Southeast Asia. First of all, Thailand never signed the 1972 UNESCO Convention which established international law on the subject. A lot of the countries whose antiquities are in demand, third world countries, signed the Convention right away. But many of the first world countries who make a lot of money off of the antiquities trade didn't sign it until much later, including the US who ratifed the treaty in
The site has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1992. The list exists as part of an effort to protect and conserve sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance.