In the mid-1990s I took a wood carving of 10 heads that I had bought in Indonesia to a framer's shop in Central Hong Kong. I wanted to have a stand made for it. When I went to pick it up, the man who ran the shop asked me if I was interested in Cambodian art. I didn't know anything about it, but I said "okay." He closed his shop and took me around the corner to a warehouse that was filled with stone carvings that had been chipped out of the temples and palaces of ancient Cambodia. The scene in Grave Imports, in which Ray Sharp is taken to the warehouse for the first time, is pretty much exactly as it happened to me.
When I left the warehouse, I called the Hong Kong police. They told me that they were aware of the trade in Cambodian antiquities, that it was illegal to smuggle them out of Cambodia, but that once they arrived in Hong Kong there was no law against selling them.
At the time, I was deputy editor of Asian Business magazine. I couldn't convince the editor that the theft of Cambodian art was a good story for us. I did write several stories on the subject that appeared in other, local magazines and newspapers, but they didn't raise the ruckus I had hoped for.
I kept up with developments in the story after that. I travelled to Cambodia and saw the ravages of the looting for myself. I was first in the country when the Khmer Rouge were still fighting the government. There were a lot of areas that I couldn't travel to because they weren't safe. Even in the safe areas, there were a lot of places that were cordoned off due to the presence of landmines. On my first trip, when I was at the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheang that overlooks Angkor Wat, I could hear the sounds of a battleartillery, and even some small arms firein the distance.
About four years ago I read two books that, along with my previous experience, gave me the idea for GRAVE IMPORTS.
The Gate by Francois Bizot is nearly surrealistic. The author is the only known Westerner to have been captured by the Khmer Rouge and survived. He was a Frenchman, a professor, who had the good fortune (?) to be captured by a KR unit under the command of Kang Kech Eav (better known as "Duch.") Before fleeing from the invading / liberating Vietnamese army, Duch had been commander of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. But, like many in the Khmer Rouge leadership, Duch had been educated in Paris. He was, no doubt, bored living in the jungle in command of a ragtag army unit of mostly uneducated teenagers. Capturing Bizot, gave him someone to talk with. The two men spent a lot of time talking philosophy and in the end, when orders came down from central headquarters to kill the prisoner, Duch helped him to get away. Bizot now lives in Paris, where he holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne. Duch is currently (as of September 2007) the first of the Khmer Rouge leadership to go on trial in Phom Penh for crimes against humanity.
The other book is The Lost Heritage: The Reality of Artifact Smuggling in Southeast Asia by Masayuki Nagashima. It is full of fascinating, and sometimes bizarre, details of the trade in stolen antiquities. The book has a chapter on the activities of the Sunthorn family of Thailand. The "Thongchai" family in GRAVE IMPORTS are based on them. In a police raid on their family compound, one cop went out to the lotus pond to have a smoke. He looked into the water and saw a huge face looking up at him. That, in real life, is how the family's hiding place for a number of very large Buddha heads was discovered.
While GRAVE IMPORTS as a whole is fiction, many of the places in which the story unfolds are real, as are the details of the trade in stolen Cambodian artifiacts. Though the Khmer Rouge has been put out of busines, the trade goes on. Tourists can still go to River City in Bangkok and with very little effort find real (and some fakes) Cambodian antiquities to buy and smuggle home.
Here is a short article that I wrote in June 2007 to be included in the press kit for GRAVE IMPORTS:
STOLEN HEADS FOR SALE
A team of giant-power-saw wielding Cambodian soldiers spent the better part of a month in the jungles of the country's northwest, hacking up the spectacular, stone frieze decorating the wall surrounding the thousand-year-old temple of Banteay Chmar. They destroyed a lot of the monument in the process. What they didn't ruin, they chopped into 117 huge stone blocks and wrestled onto a convoy of trucks for the short run over the border to Thailand.
Thai police stopped them. At least some of Cambodia's incredible cultural heritage was recovered and returned.
That was in 1999 and it was, and still is, the exception, not the rule. Between 1996 and 2006, Thai and Cambodian police intercepted 1,600 artifacts that had been stolen from Cambodia and were en route to Bangkok. That was just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
Interpol estimates the worldwide market in stolen art and antiques to be worth about ten billion dollars per year. In the world of global crime, only guns and drugs are worth more.
The U.S. is a big customer. Between 1988 and 2005, Sotheby's in New York, alone, auctioned off about 350 Cambodian artifacts, valued at over seven million dollars. Eighty percent of those sales had no listed provenance. There are a few legitimate reasons why an item sold at auction wouldn't have an available history of its ownership, but in most cases the only reasonable explanation is that the item was, at some point, acquired illegally.
There are over 3,350 known sites of cultural significance in Cambodia. The country is one of the world's richest repositories of important antiquities. InvadersThais, Vietnamese, French, Americanshave been stealing the country's heritage for hundreds of years.
Cambodians have also gotten into the act. After being chased from power by the invading Vietnamese, the Khmer Rougewho may have caused the deaths of as many as a third of the entire population of Cambodiafinanced their continuing battle to control the country through the smuggling and sale of antiques looted from the ancient temples, palaces and citadels.
The Khmer Rouge are now defeated. Their few remaining leaders will soon go on trial for crimes against humanity. But the wholesale theft and destruction of Cambodia's invaluable heritage continues.
In June this year, around the same time that the Cambodian government agency charged with protecting the country's heritage was announcing an increase in the size of its specially-trained police force, word came of a major raid by smugglers on a recently discovered remote site near the border with Thailand.
It is still a simple matter for anyone to find stolen Cambodian antiquities for sale in the antique shops of Singapore and Thailand. River City in Bangkok, a popular shopping destination for tourists, is a major center of the trade. Neither Thailand or Singapore have signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention that prohibits the import of stolen cultural property, and requires countries to monitor the antique trade within their borders.
But to buy stolen Cambodian art, you don't even have to leave the comfort of your own home. As of June 21 this year, there were at least five items listed under "antiques" on eBay, that were most likely looted from Cambodia. None of the items were listed with a provenance. One of them, the most expensive, was a 10th Century red sandstone head of a Hindu god. It was being sold by an antique dealer in Thailand and the price estimate for the auction was between eight and ten thousand dollars. If the pictures were accurate, it was a beautiful piece. The neck was irregular though, ragged, as if the head had been roughly sawn off the body of a large statue.