This past week, the family of the late billionaire art collector, George Lindemann, agreed to return 33 pieces of artwork from their collection that had been stolen from Cambodia. Mr. Lindemann was an American billionaire businessman who made his fortune as chief executive officer of the Southern Union fossil fuel company. Lindemann was an avid art collector and used his wealth to collect many impressive pieces ranging from ancient to modern times. Lindemann died in 2018 and was survived by his wife Frayda and his three children: Adam, Sloan, and George Jr. He left his art collection to his family, but recent pushes from the Cambodian government have shed light on the fact that many of the pieces from Mr. Lindemann’s collection were stolen from sacred religious sites in Cambodia.
Cambodian officials were originally made aware of Mr. Lindemann’s possession of their cultural artwork when Architectural Digest did a spread in 2008 on his $68.5 million home in Palm Beach, Florida. Photos showed the artwork displayed across his sprawling home. Further proof was found that the Lindemann’s were in possession of culturally significant artwork when Architectural Digest did yet another article on the family in 2021. This time, the magazine exhibited the home of Mr. Lindemann’s daughter, Sloan, who owns a $42 million mansion in San Francisco. Photographs from this 2021 magazine were altered to cut out the famous artifacts, but officials were able to unearth the originals. As this surmounting pile of evidence grew and officials from Cambodia and the United States grew more hasty, Sloan agreed to return the pieces to their homeland.
This return of artwork is part of a long string stretching back to an agreement made between the United States and Cambodia in 2003, titled the “U.S. – Cambodia Cultural Property Agreement.” This agreement was required to be made as a part of an international treaty formed at the UNESCO Conference on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1970, which aims to fight the illegal trade of cultural items. Since 1972, this treaty has been in effect and has aided several countries to reobtain culturally significant objects stolen from their land.
Civil conflict and unrest in Cambodia from the 1960s to the early 2000s made the country vulnerable to looters who stole many of the nation’s artifacts.. Looters were often native Cambodians who could not pass up the money offered in exchange for artifacts. In an interview with the New York Times, one man shared his experience as a looter, in which he estimates that he stole 1,000 objects in exchange for money. He explains that he worked as a trader, and originally exchanged stolen cattle for clothing to sell. However, one day a trading partner offered him money for the head of a statue he had in his possession that he had found near his home. The financial security that came along with selling these artifacts led him to trade them for over two decades. Now, he is working with officials in Cambodia to retrieve the pieces he sold.
The Cambodian ambassador to the United States described the wonderful feeling of having these pieces returned to their rightful country. In an interview he stated, “returning this artifact is like returning our pride, returning our soul back to our people.” The pieces returned by the Lindemann family marks a positive step toward restoring Cambodia’s cultural history; hopefully one day, all artifacts are returned to their proper resting places, and the soul of the people of Cambodia can be full.