Cambodia’s most illustrious looter

On March 30th, the New York Times carried a lengthy article on the role of two respected US scholars in the looting of Cambodian antiquities. It is an interesting story but arguably one far more interesting is that of Cambodia’s most illustrious looter – André Malraux – told by Steven Boswell in his highly acclaimed alternative guide to Phnom Penh, King Norodom’s Head.

André Malraux Dined Here

He did indeed, here (Map 2, #41) where KFC has one of its several Phnom Penh outlets, though it’s doubtful Malraux feasted on Col. Sanders’ fried fowl or a Zinger Burger. The future World War II resistance hero, acclaimed writer, and de Gaulle’s minister of culture was confined with his wife Clara for several months in 1923–24 to the hotel which once occupied this building following their arrest for the theft of sculptures from Banteay Srey temple twenty-five kilometers northeast of Angkor.

They had been married only ten months when André lost virtually all of Clara’s dowry and inheritance betting on the stock market, notably on a Mexican silver mining company. To replenish their empty bank accounts, André devised the idea of looting Cambodian temples of Buddhas and Shivas and selling them to American collectors. In a Paris library they came across an article on the wonders of the Banteay Srey ruins, which had only been “found” in 1914 and had since been neglected. André was even able to get documentation from the Colonial Office, saying he was on an official archaeological mission.

Together with Louis Chevasson, André’s pal since school days, the Malraux sailed from Marseille in October 1923 aboard the steamship Angkor, appropriately enough. Following visits to Saigon and Hanoi, where they learned that all antiquities from both discovered and undiscovered temples in Siem Reap had to be left in situ, the trio arrived in Phnom Penh in December. The men were suitably decked out in white linen suits, black string ties, and cork pith helmets. Shortly thereafter they embarked on a riverboat for Siem Reap with a servant named Xa and wooden chests labeled “Chemical products” to carry home the loot.

In Siem Reap, the trio hired oxcarts and, trying to remain inconspicuous while slashing through vegetation, made their way to the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srey. Using crowbars, chisels, and wedges, they pried loose seven slabs of stone carved with bas-reliefs of apsara and devata (female celestial beings), then lowered them with winches into the chests and onto the carts. The chests were then taken back to Siem Reap and loaded onto a boat for the trip downriver.

But their expedition had not gone unnoticed. In Phnom Penh, George Groslier, director of the Albert Sarraut Museum (today the National Museum) had become suspicious of the trio’s motivations. Groslier reported that Malraux seemed to have an antiquarian’s interest in Khmer art, notably in the heads of Angkor era statues of mysterious provenance on sale at a Paris antique dealer at fabulous prices. In Siem Reap, a French functionary named Crémazy welcomed the Malraux and Chevasson and even took them on a tour of Angkor Wat. But Crémazy had been alerted – perhaps by Groslier – to the Malraux’s dubious claims of being nothing more than archaeological scholars exploring the region and studying the relationship between ancient Khmer and Siamese art. Rather than warning them, Crémazy had them shadowed and he subsequently informed his superiors in Phnom Penh of the results.

When the riverboat reached Kompong Chhnang, the police and Groslier were waiting. After prying open the chests, they charged the three with possession of stolen antiquities. Under police escort, the Malraux and Chevasson proceeded downriver to Phnom Penh. They arrived in the city on Christmas Eve and were allowed to spend the rest of the night in their cabins. “What am I going to tell Maman?” Clara asked herself.

The next morning the three thieves were placed under house arrest at the Grand Hôtel, just across the street from the landing stage, where today one can dine on Kentucky fried wings and thighs. They were allowed to come and go during the day but had to remain within the confines of the city.

The Grand Hôtel at that time was owned and run by a Greek named Nicolas Manolis, and in fact it was commonly referred to as the Hôtel Manolis. The Grand was an establishment of limited comfort, but nonetheless in 1923 it was the city’s best hostelry. As Clara wrote in her memoirs, “Our room with whitewashed walls was large, furnished with an expansive bed enveloped in its mosquito net and with a round table of dirty wood; it was one of the better rooms in the best hotel of Phnom Penh: we were to spend four months there.”

For New Year’s Eve the next week, a military band played while colonial administrators, military officers, settlers, and their spouses danced and sipped champagne. Clara in a black dress and André in a white tuxedo made a fashionable entrance exactly at midnight, just as the band was launching into Auld Lang Syne. The colonials seemed to keep a certain distance from them, doubtless aware of their reputation as adventurers cum looters.

They passed the days reading books from the city’s library and newspapers from their hotel. Clara came down with dengue fever. Her mother wrote urging her to divorce André. The Malraux soon ran out of funds, and they owed the hotel three months’ room rent. They had to give up pastries and cigarettes, and André had to do without alcohol (Clara didn’t drink). It was clear that one of them needed to return to France to raise money for their defense.

Clara devised a secret plan. She feigned suicide from an overdose of sleeping pills, dissolving the tablets in a washbasin. André, unaware, entered the room and saw his collapsed spouse and the empty tubes of pills. He shouted for help. A stretcher arrived, and two light-footed bearers carried Clara to the hospital. As it was a charity hospital, André was able to move into his wife’s ward free of charge. But the fake suicide attempt did not result in her release from Phnom Penh. Still at the hospital, Clara now went on a hunger strike, surviving only on orange juice. Her weight fell to a skeletal thirty-six kilos.

Either due to her condition or the presumption that Clara was just a faithful wife following her husband, the judge dropped the charges against her. They had spent over three months at the Grand and another three at the hospital. Clara would now return to France to sell their Picasso and raise further funding for her husband’s defense. Her father-in-law sent money for a return boat ticket as well as some pocket money, which she gave to her “companion,” as she continually refers to André in her memoirs, though whether he used it to pay his bill at the Grand is uncertain.

Clara was en route home when the two-day trial began. Still claiming to be a scholar of antiquities, André pleaded innocent, his rationale being that Banteay Srey had not yet officially been listed as a historic site. The prosecution accused Malraux of being an enemy of France (their secret dossier on him labeled André as a Bolshevik sympathizer and his wife as a Jew of German extraction). On July 21, Judge Jodin sentenced André, as leader of the “official mission,” to three years in prison, Chevasson to eighteen months. France would keep the stolen sculptures. The case now went to the appellate court in Saigon. Malraux and Chevasson left Phnom Penh and the Grand Hôtel for that city.

In France, Clara received the backing of illustrious literary and artistic figures, including the writers André Gide and André Maurois, who wrote articles and signed petitions in support of Malraux. In October, the appellate court levied a one-year sentence for André and three months for Chevasson, but the judge then suspended the punishments, thereby sparing the two even one day in jail. Perhaps the judge was swayed by the defense lawyer’s claim that the pair’s theft of antiquities was no different from what governors and other officials had been doing since the early days of the protectorate (not to mention the scholars and artists who carted off statuary on a much greater scale and which can be seen today, for example, in the Musée Guimet in Paris). Nonetheless, André was incensed by the verdict, still proclaiming his innocence, and he filed an additional appeal. Malraux and Chevasson soon departed for France. As for the appeal, it was never addressed in court. The Supreme Court of Appeal in Paris voided the verdict on a technicality and sent the case back to the Saigon court, where it seems to have just faded away.

However, from their stay at the charity hospital, from their walks in the “native” parts of the city, and from their perception of the bias of the protectorate’s judiciary, the Malraux had discovered the misery of the common people and the “cruel injustice” of France’s colonial system. This would lead André and Clara to return to Saigon and write for a local newspaper, supporting the rights of the Vietnamese and publicizing colonial abuse.

In 1930 André published The Royal Way, a fictional rendition loosely based on his Cambodian adventures, though sans a Clara character. André Malraux went on to great literary and political fame, but he never apologized for the thievery he had committed in Cambodia, and to this day he remains Cambodia’s most illustrious looter.

(Chapter continues with discussion on various hotels.)

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