Cambodian Effort to Find Artifacts Won’t End With Informant’s Death

Cambodian officials say a reformed looter who directed a ring that pillaged Khmer-era temples for two decades, ending in the late 1990s, has died, but that they will continue to use the testimony he provided as they work to reclaim more stolen artifacts.

The man, Toek Tik, 62, spent the last two years informing officials of his activities as he sought to help them reclaim hundreds of statues and other relics he said he had personally looted, many of which, Cambodia says, are now in private hands and museum collections.

Based in part on Toek Tik’s testimony and on evidence like bases, pedestals and the broken remnants of statues found at the sites he said he had pillaged, Cambodia recently asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art to document how it had obtained 45 “highly significant” Khmer items that are part of its collection.The Met is in discussions with Cambodian officials and has said it had “proactively” begun to research its collection, independent of the recent request.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Toek Tik, who went by the nickname Lion, died on Nov. 29 after contracting the coronavirus, his family said. He had been assisting Cambodian officials in efforts to recover artifacts by revisiting overgrown temples and crawling into hidden alcoves where the objects had once stood in search of remnants that would provide evidence of the items’ origins.

Hab Touch, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Lion. He is one of the most important witnesses for our work in gathering evidence on the loss of Cambodian cultural heritage and demanding its return to its rightful owners, the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

With an understanding of the severity of Toek Tik’s illness, Cambodian archaeologists and lawyers documented his accounts through multiple excavations and by videotaping hours of conversations in which he explained in detail how he had removed statues and sculptures.

“Thankfully, before he died, he shared with us countless names of sites, dates, maps and descriptions of looted items, along with introducing us to many former looters who we are in touch with,” said Bradley J. Gordon, an American lawyer who represents Cambodia.

In interviews with The Times, Toek Tik recently described how from 1977 to 1997, under the cover of Cambodia’s decades of genocide and upheaval, he had systematically targeted temples and shrines in the nation’s forests and jungles and fed the plundered statuary to dealers and brokers.

While Toek Tik said he and his gang rarely received more than a few hundred dollars for the objects they removed, many were sold through Thai intermediaries for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In an interview with The Times, Toek Tik said he rued his actions and was hoping to redeem himself. “I regret what I did,” he said through a translator. “I want the gods to come home.” Toek Tik’s testimony has so far led to the recovery of statues from the Denver Art Museum and private collectors, and has been cited in court papers by the Justice Department.

A father of eight who grew up in a poor village about 100 miles south of the Thai border, Toek Tik said he was impressed into the Khmer Rouge while a teenager in the 1970s and forced to take part in killing squads. He said he fled the Khmer Rouge around 1977 and, while hiding in the jungle, discovered many abandoned temples. After learning he could barter relics for hard currency, he made a career of it.

Mr. Gordon, who knew Toek Tik for nearly a decade and described him as a close friend, said Toek Tik felt haunted by his actions under the Khmer Rouge and by the devastating effects of his looting.

“There is a strong belief among Cambodians that looting is a cursed business and possession of looted objects only leads to bad luck and hardship,” Mr. Gordon said.

Speaking of Toek Tik’s help in locating forensic evidence of looting, Phin Samnang, an archaeologist with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said: “Lion helped us very much in the excavations by taking us right to the pedestals of statues inside the chambers. His instructions are very specific and help to prove that our statues have been looted.”