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The Search for the Apollo 17 Moon Rock: a CKS Detective Thriller

moon rock fragment

Encased in lucite, this 1.142-gram moon rock was returned to Earth by Apollo 17 in 1972 and presented to Cambodia. (US Embassy in Cambodia)

In 1973, one month before the US stopped bombing Cambodia as a part of the Vietnam War, President Nixon presented to Cambodia a fragment of the moon rock brought back to earth by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, as a symbol of peace and harmony among countries throughout the world.

It was received by then Cambodian president Lon Nol, and, at some point in the two years before Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, was deposited in the storage of the National Museum of Art in Phnom Penh, where it was subsequently detached from its original plaque and its documentation "lost".

Bertrand Porte, a longtime conservator at the Ecole française d'Extréme-Orient at the National Museum of Cambodia, recently found a piece of rock without identification or listing in the Museum’s catalogue, and thus began a search for the provenance of this piece. Authenticating the moon rock turned into quite an adventure, from the Museum’s conservation lab to the French Cultural Attache, to the US Embassy, State Department, Nixon Archives and National Archives....and finally the Center for Khmer Studies.

Cultural Affairs Officer Monica Davis searching the CKS Library

Cultural Affairs Officer Monica Davis searching the CKS Library.

After six months of searching, U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Newbill and Cultural Affairs Officer Monica Davis chanced to be visiting CKS Director Natharoun Ngo and CKS’s Library in Siem Reap. Monica inquired whether the CKS library kept archives or copies of old newspapers.

CKS Librarian Sivleng Chhor responded that we did indeed, and pointed Monica to the place she was seeking. A few minutes later, Monica cried out gleefully, “I found it!”—a Eureka! moment. Indeed, in its research library, CKS had a 1973 edition of the Khmer Republic magazine, recounting the ceremony in which the moon rock was presented to the Cambodian Government.

US Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Newbill reading the Khmer Republic article

US Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Newbill reading the Khmer Republic article

The Apollo 17 moon rock is now a central feature of an exhibition at the National Museum, in celebration of the Museum’s 100th anniversary in 2020.

CKS’s close relationship with the National Museum dates back to the early days of our program in Cambodia. At that time, distinguished art historian and CKS Trustee Emma Bunker came to Phnom Penh with philanthropist Shelby White, who founded NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, named for her late husband.

Moved by the plight of the National Museum, a treasure chest of brilliant ancient Khmer art, White discussed with its Director how she could help the Museum. After more than fifteen years of civil war, the collection was undocumented and disorganized—the catalogue files hand-written, faded, and scattered—and no modern system of documentation existed to identify, locate or explain pieces in the collection. Existing photographs were often on glass plates and faded.

Khmer Republic published an article on the moon rock donation, complete with a statement from President Nixon, in 1973. Click a photo to enlarge.

Thus was born the CKS/Leon Levy Foundation National Museum Digital Database and Catalogue Project. Over ten years, from 2004 to 2014, CKS Trustee Darryl Collins, an Australian art historian living in Cambodia, devoted his time as project director to creating a new digital database, patiently instructing museum employees, establishing a center for digital photography, and carefully overseeing the documentation of every piece in the Museum’s display and storage.

The Leon Levy Foundation generously granted over $300,000 in funds for equipment and personnel training to bring the National Museum’s Collection Catalogue to international museological standards. Upon completion of the digital database and catalogue in 2014, it was posted online so that scholars and art lovers throughout the world could visit the Museum’s collection and access the multiple digital images. The curatorial work of provenance and authentication continued.

The rock Bertrand Porte found in his conservation laboratory and sought to authenticate is thus by chance another quirky step in an ongoing relationship between CKS and the National Museum. It also pays tribute to our own meticulously kept research library and the scholarship it enables.

We at CKS are delighted by this story of the finding of the Apollo 17 moon rock—a symbol of peace and good will among nations—even as the underlying knowledge that enabled those astronauts to reach the moon and return to earth was a tribute to science. We join in the Museum’s celebration!

Center for Khmer Studies

The Center for Khmer Studies is the American Overseas Research Center based in Cambodia.

*This discussion is indebted to Robert Z. Pearlman, “Apollo Moon Rock Rediscovered in Cambodia Debuts on Display," from

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