US returns 30 antiquities looted from Cambodia

U.S. and Cambodian officials on Monday urged museums and private collectors to investigate the origins of their Khmer art to determine if it has been looted, and officials demonstrated the ubiquity of such thefts at an event celebrating the return of 30 antiquities to Cambodia.

Behind the officials were seven masterpieces of the country’s ancient heritage, including a 10th-century sandstone statue known as “Skanda on a Peacock”, which investigators say was stolen in a temple by a Khmer Rouge conscript and self-proclaimed looter in 1997.

The Cambodian government will also welcome a five-foot-tall sculpture of a Hindu god, Ganesha, but the four-tonne sculpture was only pictured on a poster on Monday for fear it could smash the elevators at the Manhattan offices of the US attorney. for the Southern District of New York.

The two objects are said to have been looted from the archaeological site of Koh Ker, the capital of the ancient Khmer empire.

The antiquities being repatriated, officials said, were all trafficked by an organized looting ring and sold on the Western art market through Douglas AJ Latchford, a British art dealer and art collector. Cambodian antiques. He died in 2020, less than a year after being accused of smuggling looted relics and covering up their tainted histories by forging documents to help sell them.

“It’s like a return of the souls of our culture to our peoples,” Keo Chhea, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, said at Monday’s press conference.

The relics were returned as part of an investigation into Mr Latchford by federal prosecutors in New York and the Department of Homeland Security. They were seized from two individuals and a US museum that owned the artifacts. All three cooperated with investigators.

“We commend the individuals and institutions that decided to do the right thing,” said Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, “and after learning of the origin of the antiquities in their possession, they decided to voluntarily return these parts to their country of origin.”

The owner of ‘Skanda on a Peacock’, which depicts the Hindu deity Skanda riding the bird, inherited the sculpture from a collector who bought it from Mr Latchford in 2000 for $1.5million, according to court documents. The heir, who has not been publicly identified, has agreed to turn over possession of the artifact to federal authorities.

Twenty-five of the antiquities that are being returned to Cambodia were returned by James H. Clark, the Internet pioneer and founder of Netscape, who said he spent around $35 million buying dozens of Cambodian antiquities and d Southeast Asia, which he used to furnish a penthouse in Miami Beach.

“I remember one day walking through my apartment looking at these items and thinking, ‘They really should be in a museum and not in private hands,'” Mr. Clark said in a telephone interview on Monday. “And that’s where they will be.”

Federal officials said Mr. Latchford tricked Mr. Clark into believing the artifacts were legitimately being sold and that once they presented evidence to the contrary, Mr. Clark agreed to hand over 35 items, including most were from Cambodia. These objects include the elephant-headed Ganesha, a seated bronze Buddha, and a sandstone Buddha.

The 30 artifacts cited Monday are expected to arrive in Cambodia by October, after which the government hopes to hold a national celebration around their return, said Bradley J. Gordon, a lawyer representing the country. Government officials intend for the items to eventually be displayed to the public, he said.

Four of the antiques were returned by the Denver Art Museum. The museum declined to comment on the ceremony, but said it was also currently looking for two Thai items linked to Mr Latchford.

The criminal case against Mr Latchford has been dropped since his death. During his lifetime, Mr Latchford, who had been praised by the Cambodian government for his scholarship on Khmer art and his contributions to state museums, had argued that Westerners who bought such antiquities and sold them or gave them to museums saved them from possible destruction.

During Monday’s ceremony, a delegation of Cambodian officials traveled across the United States for 10 days, visiting museums in California, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York to request documentation relating to Khmer collections from institutions. .

Their efforts are part of a global campaign to recover hundreds of Khmer and pre-Khmer artifacts that have circled the globe following decades of looting. Their mission was greatly enhanced with the help of a Cambodian named Toek Tik, the former Khmer Rouge conscript, who revealed details of his prolific career of plunder to authorities in order to make amends for actions he now regrets. .

Sopheap Meas, deputy director of antiquities management at the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that during her travels she had seen many unique objects that she said should never have left. Cambodia.

“The burden of proof should be on museums to show that they have the right to legally possess Cambodia’s national treasures,” she said.

The main message of the event, according to officials from the United States and Cambodia, was that although these objects were repatriated, many others of illicit origin remained in the hands of private collectors and museums. Mr Williams encouraged “anyone who believes they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities in their possession to come forward”.

“We know that this issue goes much deeper, deeper than a single man’s activity,” Chhea said.

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