Author: Emily Sidorsky**
Published: December 1993
Description: In 1923 the government of France sent a twenty-one year old student of the Ecole des Langues Orientales to French-controlled Indochina to record outstanding examples of ancient Khmer architecture. Rather than simply recording what he saw, however, the young man seized the opportunity to use his official status as a cover to carry out the clandestine export of stone carvings to France. He organized a group to search the jungle near Angkor, Cambodia, for the temple known as Bantea-Srei, or the “Citadel of Women,” dating from the tenth to fourteenth centuries.
Arriving there, they cut from the temple walls seven richly decorated and well preserved stones together weighing over one ton. Subsequently, they were arrested in Phnom Penh on board a boat with their cache and charged with theft and the desecration of the historic monument. One of the men charged, and the mastermind of the scheme, was none other than André Malraux.
In his defense, Malraux contended that the temple had been abandoned property, so that he should be permitted to keep the objects that he had expended the skill and energy to retrieve. Furthermore, he asserted that the removal of the artifacts was in the best interest of “culture” if the concept was properly understood. His definition of culture, or specifically of the cultural group, did not adhere to national boundaries but extended across all borders. Therefore, he argued that by rescuing the objects, he had allowed them to be better preserved and to be made available to a wider audience. Malraux lost his case, but the transnational view of culture which he advanced in this context is still important and influential.
*Notes and Comments
**J.D. Candidate, Columbia University School of Law, 1995; M.Arch. Columbia University School of Architecture, 1988. The author would like to thank Judith A. Freedberg of the T.M.C. Asser Institute in the Hague for her helpful comments and guidance in preparing this note.