Art Meets Intrigue In Bangkok Trading In Ancient Treasures Can Be Lucrative - And Fatal.

Posted: October 29, 1988

BANGKOK — Along the dark and crowded alleys of Chinatown's Thieves Market and the cool, carpeted corridors of this hard-sell city's finest art dealerships, the stakes of trading in ancient treasure have always been high.

Rare finds and blind luck have more than once transformed a humble, bent- backed junk-seller into a gold-draped millionaire. But bad luck and bad judgment have been at least as common. Fortunes have been made and lost, and so, sometimes, have lives.

Bangkok has for years been the center of a multimillion-dollar trade in ancient artwork, not all of which comes from Thailand. Art is smuggled out of the impoverished neighboring states of Kampuchea, Laos and Burma by traders who pilfer national treasures and sell them across Thailand's porous borders for badly needed cash. In the old days, Bangkok art dealers went to the borders themselves, their pockets stuffed with dollars, to look over pieces and haggle for a price.

But in recent years, several dealers have been killed by bandits who waylaid them after a sale, slit their throats, took the art and vanished back over the vine-draped borders. Now, most of the dealers rely on hardened middle men who know the smugglers, speak their language and travel with their own armed guards.

"It's more expensive that way," said a wealthy dealer who specializes in centuries-old Burmese carvings of Buddha, "but at least you don't get yourself killed."

Bangkok's recently acquired sophistication, its highways and modernized international airport, its high-rise buildings and burgeoning high-tech industries, cannot entirely conceal an older city where conspiracies and intrigue thrive and back-room deals are made over mah-jongg tables. In the high-rolling art world, intrigue is part of the business. But in recent weeks, that business has become trickier than usual as authorities have moved to crack down on the illegal trade in Thailand's own ancient treasures.

This month, police officers and officials of the Department of Fine Arts raided the two stores of one of Bangkok's most prominent dealers, her warehouse, and even her home and the homes of her immediate family. During raids that lasted for five consecutive days, the authorities confiscated more than 500 works of art that they said were stolen from Thailand's ancient temples.

Today, those works are displayed rather unceremoniously at police headquarters, as experts determine whether the busts, figures and reliefs were obtained legally or whether they were dug up from ancient sites, chipped from temple walls and snatched from unguarded altars.

Wallee Padungsiriseth, the owner of the two raided Fine Arts L.P. shops and several warehouses, denies that any of the work was obtained illegally.

A soft-spoken businesswoman who usually can be found in one of her shops, a cluttered establishment in the elegant Oriental Plaza, Wallee said she did not understand what prompted the raids, or why her business was singled out.

Neither, she said, does she understand why her BMW and Mercedes-Benz were firebombed a week before, or why, since the raids, she has received several death threats on the telephone.

"I am the best. So maybe somebody wants to get me," she whispered with a hiss. "Maybe it is jealousy. Or maybe it is because I am not like the others," she said, motioning toward a carpeted hallway lined with shops and galleries featuring a wide range of art objects - from rare, dust-encrusted treasures to obvious reproductions.

"I don't talk to them," she said of the other shop owners. "I don't play mah-jongg. I am always too busy working. So maybe they are the ones behind it. . . . My stuff here, you know, it is the best. I don't sell things that are stolen.

"But the police came. I even had trouble getting a lawyer. Someone is out to get me. You know, within hours of the first raid I was getting calls from buyers in London and Germany asking what was going on. I told them not to call again. You know, I have been getting these death threats. Everything is miserable."

Although the reason why Wallee's dealership was singled out for the raids was never made clear, several other dealers suggested that the police raids were politically motivated, ordered by a new minister of fine arts who wanted to make his mark and chose Wallee's high-profile operation as an example and a warning to the art community at large.

They pointed out, too, that the Art Institute of Chicago's initial refusal this year to return a rare sandstone sculpture to Thailand alarmed authorities.

The institute said that the sculpture, a Hindu relief that dates from the golden age of the Khmer civilization, 805 to 1250, was purchased legally. Experts there considered it to be one of the institute's finest examples of Thai sculpture and said they would return it only if the Thais came up with a piece of equal value and rarity. The sculpture, a lintel from the entrace to the main shrine at Phnom Rung Palace, disappeared in the early 1960s.

This week, the institute agreed to return the lintel to Thailand after a Chicago-based philanthropic group said it would donate an artifact "of equal artistic merit."

"After the Chicago piece," one dealer said, "everyone seems to be more conscious of just where all the art that is on sale here is ending up."

In fact, much of the art that is sold in Bangkok is sold to tourists and

collectors who take it out of the country to the United States, Europe and elsewhere in Asia. That flow, though long overlooked, has become a sore point with Thai authorities.

As Thailand increasingly adopts the ways, habits and styles of the West, questions of cultural identity have become more prickly and important.

So irritating was the Chicago museum's attitude toward Thailand's own art buffs that this summer, they started to sport T-shirts with drawings of the lintel along with printed urgings that it be sent home. And the more irate the Bangkok art experts, government authorities and newspaper editors became over the issue, the more outraged the general public became.

"I have followed quite closely reports regarding the Thai lintel," a recent letter to the Bangkok Post said. "At stake is not merely the return of stolen property (but) the loss of cultural heritage to a foreign power. . . . What do you think would happen if a group of Thais were to airlift the Liberty Bell for display in their country?"

For Wallee, whose business caters to sophisticated collectors worldwide, the sudden clampdown has come at a bad time. While she has not been formally charged by authorities, the raids and the confiscation of items from her stores have hurt business.

"I had been hoping that after this year, I could slow down and not work as much," she said. "I thought it would be a good time for that. But now, I don't know what I will do, and I do not know if I will ever see these pieces again. This is the Third World. Anything can happen now. I don't even have a list of what they took."

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