An American couple traveling through Thailand stumbled upon an antiques gallery in Bangkok, where they “fell in love” with a bas relief reportedly acquired from the Baphuon temple at Angkor Wat.
The couple had doubts, of course. Was it authentic? And if it was, how would they get it past customs? The dealer assured them that the statue was real, that papers were easy to forge, and that clearing U.S. customs would be a breeze. (The dealer did it all the time.) The couple also, apparently, felt the mildest pangs of a moral dilemma, which they quickly concluded were unwarranted.
The remaining questions we had were moral. Selling, importing and exporting antiquities is not illegal in Thailand, as long as they are not Thai antiquities. That said, to virtually all developed countries ban the trade. Though the Vatican, British and French have plundered many of the world’s treasures, such plundering is no longer in style. Though they are no longer plundering, they are not returning their ill-gotten gains. This may not be a bad thing, as one could argue they are safer in the museums of Europe and America than in their original countries. I cannot argue with that, if safety and preservation is concerned, a museum in France, or even my living room, is probably superior to a Cambodian storeroom.
The answer to that question is almost certainly no.
Tales of artifact smuggling abound on the Interwebs. All of them describe smuggling as, well, smuggling — elaborate networks of insiders and all manner of subterfuge to hide the artwork as it crossed international borders. If it were as easy as waving some fake papers at clueless customs officials, it seems more than likely that the billion-dollar-per-year smuggling industry would have figured that out by now.
Clueless tourists, maybe not.