Sunday, September 4, 2011

Criminal Logic

Purportedly an Angkorian era lintel from Baphuon temple that the author of the article ("Taking Home a Piece of Angkor Wat") was considering buying from an antiquities dealer in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo lifted from the article "Taking Home a Piece of Angkor Wat"

Your television has been stolen from your living room. The thief sells it to a fence, who puts the word on the street that he's got a nice big-screen plasma for sale. Prospective buyers, Joe Suburbia and his wife, hear about the TV and would really like to buy it, but they also know it is of dubious origin and, considering themselves to be a 'good people,' feel conflicted, if only a bit. The fence offers some soul soothing logic…

"Well, who really 'owns' stuff, so to speak? I mean, his Dad gave him that TV, so it's not really his anyways. Besides, why should he be the only one to get to enjoy it? Why shouldn't we be able to move that TV to your house where you and your friends can enjoy it? And on top of that, he didn't even take very good care of it, so doesn't that mean it's not really his?

Persuaded, the prospective buyers wipe their brows in relief and say, "So, how much do you want for it…" 


Do you accept the fence's logic? Does it matter that your Dad gave you the TV or that you don't take good care of it? Are Joe and his wife right to buy your stolen TV?

I would answer no, no and no. The fence's logic is a weak and obvious rationalization for theft. Who gave you the TV or how well you took care of it have no bearing on your ownership of it. And Joe and his wife are not only receiving stolen goods but doing so knowingly, as evidenced in part by the fact that they would entertain such specious and self-serving logic. 

In fact, the logic seems so weak as to be unrealistic. Would anybody really offer such a transparent rationalization for buying stolen goods? Well, in an attempt to justify buying Angkorian-era Khmer antiquities in Bangkok, the following blog entry comes very close.

In an entry shamelessly entitled, "Taking Home a Piece of Angkor Wat," the writer explores the "gray area" of buying stolen antiquities:
"Who owns cultural relics from generations or millennia ago?  Just because people were born within the modern borders that a historical sight sits, why do they have the ownership right?  Why should cultural relics stay in a place rather than cross borders and share their beauty with people that can’t make it to their original location?  At what point of destruction or lack of care does a culture relinquish it’s (sic) ownership right?"
Somewhat general questions. We might at first imagine that he is exploring the issue in abstract or perhaps some borderline or potentially debatable case such as some antiquity of unknown origin or something that is comparatively common like Roman coins or cuneiform tablets. But no. In the following paragraph he almost immediately identifies the piece he is considering buying - a lintel from the Baphuon temple in the heart of Angkor Thom (see photo above) - a specific, unique, irreplaceable piece from one of the most important temples in the center of the old Angkorian capital in Cambodia. It would be difficult to imagine how such a piece (if authentic) was not looted.

From there his concerns turn to the pragmatic - the authenticity of the piece, how to skirt US import law and finally, the price, which turns out to be the determining factor in his decision of whether to purchase it or not.

He does pause in the next paragraph to touch on the ethical questions he posited, if only abstractly and in brief. But it seems to me this surfacy address is little more than a half-hearted exercise in self-absolution. The beginning and end of the article reveal the author's real feeling on the subject. The opening paragraph is a giddy account of what can be had in Bangkok for a price, everything from "endangered animals" to "ill-gotten antiques." And in his final words of the essay he decides against buying the artifact, not because of the ethical considerations but because it is too expensive:
"Upon arriving, excited and scared, to purchase our piece of the Angkor Kingdom we received bad news.  The price we had been quoted was incorrect by one zero.  Previously it was very expensive, but attainable, but now it was just too expensive.  The lessons we learned in the process though, were worth it, without finding a piece we loved, doing the research, debating among ourselves, and deciding, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to think through the right, wrong and grey area of being a tomb raider."
The last sentence sums it up nicely - a straightforward admission of what he is trying to justify - "…being a tomb raider," i.e. a thief. 


For more see:

It Surfaced Down Under!: Reprehensible

Safe Corner: The ethics of "tomb raiding?"

Allison in Cambodia: Taking home a piece of Angkor is NOT OK

Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk

Wikipedia: Baphuon

BBC: Cambodia completes Angkor temple renovation 'puzzle'

Heritage Watch