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Tulane Law interns help recover stolen cultural treasures

December 15, 2015


As summer interns through a Tulane Law-sponsored partnership with Cambodia, Mitch Longan (L ’16, far left above) and Mark Donatiello (L ’16, second from right) visited the Council of Ministers, seat of the government’s executive branch, where a mural depicts the Churning of the Sea of Milk, the same myth portrayed on the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. Longan also presented research and recommendations at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (photo below).

Photos courtesy of Tess Davis 


Take a summer trip to a country that’s still rebuilding from the devastation of a bloody war followed by a ruthless, deadly dictatorship. Visit ancient temples and monuments where statues are broken, artwork dulled and treasures threatened. But don’t just observe — devise ways to protect those precious cultural sites from thieves, black-market crooks and locals who brazenly sell stolen artifacts in their yards.

This rare opportunity for law students to get immersed in the world of combating antiquities looting is possible through a partnership between Tulane Law School and the Kingdom of Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

“In many ways, it was like the Wild West with so much lawlessness and looting,” said Tulane Law student Mitch Longan (L ’16), a trained painter who completed the summer internship in 2014. 

“Being in Cambodia really broadened my world view.”

Attorney/archaeologist Tess Davis developed the Cambodia internship as an extension of Tulane Law’s summer program in Italy, the Tulane-Siena Institute for International Law, Cultural Heritage & the Arts.

In Siena, students study the relationship between international law and art, as both physical and intellectual property. Those who undertake the internship spend six weeks working alongside Cambodian officials, researching other countries’ cultural property laws to help evaluate ways Cambodia can improve its laws and enforcement.   

“In post-conflict countries, there is so much to be done, and there is so much opportunity for law students to do real and meaningful work,” said Davis, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Antiquities Coalition and a University of Glasgow art-trafficking researcher.


Mark Donatiello (L ’16, left) and Mitch Longan (L ’16, right) were among interns on a Tulane Law-sponsored program who went behind the scenes at the National Museum of Cambodia to view ongoing restoration of the Duryodhana, a 1,000-year-old sandstone sculpture recovered from Sotheby’s auction house after two years of litigation.

Davis brings a decade of expertise in fighting trafficking and cultural property loss in Southeast Asia to her role of supervising law students. The field is dynamic and extremely current. Davis said the destruction in Cambodia, which began with the Khmer Rouge’s takeover during the Vietnam War era, parallels more recent pillaging of Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

“The same kind of cultural and human tragedy is happening again, and it’s a warning sign of genocide,” she said. “First, you destroy everything the people hold sacred, then you destroy the people themselves.”

Over the past year, ISIS militants have plundered historic and religious sites, destroying monuments like the ancient city of Palmyra, while quietly stealing valuable artifacts to sell to art dealers, auction houses and curators. United Nations officials estimate ISIS could be earning as much as $100 million annually from smuggled “blood antiquities.”

Tulane Law student Judith Gronna (L ’17), who was studying in Siena when militants demolished Palmyra, said the program “gave us a very personal perspective of very recent issues. It’s not just artwork being destroyed, but also a symbol of that people’s humanity.”

Sarah Staub (L ’17), who’s focusing her studies on international law, said the Cambodia internship also taught her practical skills in working around language and cultural barriers on the job and tackling complex research that can’t be pursued through standard legal databases. 

Longan said that he now hopes to either practice abroad or specialize in art and intellectual property law. During the fall semester, he received a scholarship to attend the 27th Annual North American Law Summit of the American Bar Association’s Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries in Cancun, Mexico.

Davis, who recently moved to New Orleans, originally connected with Tulane through the law school’s summer abroad program. As an undergraduate archaeology student, she had worked on a summer field project in Cambodia, and that experience led her to law school to find better ways of protecting the antiquities she had studied, she said.

She met Professor Herb Larson while attending the international criminal law program he was at the time directing for Tulane in Amsterdam, and they developed the Siena and Cambodia programs. Davis has focused on art and cultural property law since then, working for a series of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.  


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