Stolen Cambodian art finally returned home

Bella Lee, Staff writer

Southeast Asia has gone through a lot of turmoil in recent months.

Myanmar citizens, for example, has been staging protests for the last few weeks against a coup that has overthrown the government.

However, with all of these difficult stories, perhaps one can serve as a beam of light during these dark days.

At least 100 antiquities that were stolen over the course of decades are finally going home to Cambodia.

The collection, which includes statues and carvings, is said to have such cultural significance that the country’s national museum, located in the capital of Phnom Penh, is being expanded in order to accommodate it.

Douglas Latchford, a controversial British art dealer, was charged with wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy in 2019, and US prosecutors stated that he had not only trafficked these antiquities, but that he “made a career” out of stealing them. Latchford was allegedly a part of an organized looting network that faked records for items that were taken from archaeological sites such as Angkor Wat.

He died in Thailand at the age of 88 in 2020 before he could answer to the charges, but his daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, has promised to return all of the items that her father stole over the years.

“Our culture and our statues are not just wood and clay, they possess spirits, and they have senses,” said Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, in a video interview via a translator. “The pieces themselves want to come back to their country.”

She has also told CNN that the return of the artifacts has elicited a “magical feeling.”

Bradley J. Gordon, a legal advisor to the Cambodian government, has said that 25 of the items have already been returned, and the rest will be sent in batches, with five more items due to return in the coming weeks.

Among those due to arrive soon are a sandstone depiction of the deity Prajnaparamita and a bronze carving of the legendary Garuda bird. Also included is a 10th-century depiction of the Hindu god Shiva and his son Skanda, a statue that the Cambodian government believes comes from the remote Koh Ker temple complex.

“Over the last few years I became increasingly convinced that the best way to deal with this legacy would be to give all of [Latchford’s] Khmer art, irrespective of origin, to the people of Cambodia,” said Kriangsak, about returning the items her father stole. “Many of the returned statues and other objects have impeccable provenance. However, I decided not to discriminate between those for which I know about the provenance and those that I don’t. It’s all going home.”

Latchford was considered one of the most well-known authorities of art from the Khmer Empire, which reigned between the 9th and 15th centuries.

He had always denied any wrongdoing, but his daughter told CNN, “My father bought his Khmer artifacts from auction houses, collectors and dealers of every kind, all over the world.”

While people are still divided about whether to return the items or not, Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, or ARCA, believes it is for the best.

“As long as Latchford’s name comes up in the provenance or history of objects, it will make them toxic in terms of resale,” said Albertson. “So, this might create a sense of ‘let’s give it back or let’s create some good press,’ or some feelings of goodwill between different collectors.”