In the last few months there has been quite a bit of news about ancient Cambodian cultural relics and who owns them.  The New York Times has a couple of articles on the fight over several gorgeous Angkorian statues at Sotheby’s and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (stories here and here).  These cases involve some fascinating moral and legal issues a bit too complex to be dealt with in the scope of this blog.

We’ve had a look through Cambodia’s 1993 Decision on the Protection of Cultural Property (a copy can be found here).  According to the decision, what sort of obligations and responsibilities come with owning a cultural artifact?  Very generally, It sets up a system where the government can classify any property that it considers to be of “scientific, historic, artistic or religious nature which bears witness to a certain stage in the development of a civilization or of the natural world and whose protection is in the public interest.”  There are several categories of objects – from unregistered, to registered, proposed for classification, and finally classified. Each category sets certain restrictions on ownership and the owner’s ability to sell or give away the object. For instance, classified property may not even be moved, altered or repaired without approval from the government.  However, the law does provide that the government can reimburse an owner of a classified property for restoration, repair or maintenance of the property.  If the government deems a repair or restoration to be urgent, it can repair or restore the item at its own expense, even without the owner’s consent.

Punishments for not complying with the law can be quite significant: jail time from six months to five years and/or a fine equal to the value of the object can be imposed on anyone who negligently “alienates, moves, destroys, modifies, alters, repairs or restores a registered cultural object”.  Keep an eye out for how these cases play out.

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