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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A man of ancient torsos and modern muscles

A man of ancient torsos and modern muscles

Photos supplied

Douglas Latchford: pumping for Cambodian gold in bodybuilding.

Douglas Latchford was shown a 24-inch high stone female torso at a dinner party in

Bangkok in 1955. Immediately "smitten," he began collecting Khmer antiquities.

Now, more than half a century later, Latchford is one of the foremost collectors

of Khmer art and he was in Phnom Penh last week to hand over two sets of Jayavarman

VII era gold royal regalia to the National Museum of Cambodia. Pieces from his collection

are regularly loaned to museums across the globe and he has just co-authored "Khmer

Gold," the first comprehensive work on gold in the ancient Khmer civilization.

But that's not his only tie to Cambodia. As president of the South East Asian Bodybuilding

and Fitness Federation, Latchford is an active champion of Thai and Cambodian bodybuilding.

"Asians have good physiques," he says. "With proper diet and training

we can succeed." Born in London and educated at Brighton College Latchford first

came to Asia in 1951 to work in shipping. He moved to Thailand and founded his own-still

flourishing -pharmaceutical business. The 76-year-old has a Thai passport and lives

in Thailand but keeps the bulk of his collection at his house in London Mayfair's

Berkley Square. While in Phnom Penh last week, Latchford hosted the Thai-Cambodian

Friendship Bodybuilding competition, which is normally held in Siem Reap, but this

time since he was coming for the museum ceremony, he persuaded Le Royal to host it.

He spoke to the Post's Cat Barton about antiquities, philanthropy and bodybuilding.

How did you first get involved in collecting antiquities?

I studied history of architecture and had an affinity to collecting art, not just

Khmer art, I also collect paintings and prints. I had dinner with Francois Duhau

de Berenx who worked for [American heiress] Doris Duke. The first time I saw a Khmer

sculpture was at dinner at his house - a stone female torso. It immediately had an

effect on me that would change my life.

Where did your interest in bodybuilding come from?

One of the people who worked in my company was a bodybuilder and he asked if I would

help sponsor the Thai bodybuilding association. I used to swim and play squash, I

enjoyed sport and I saw that bodybuilding was a sport that needed a shot in the arm.

The problem is the government only gives us a small amount of funding and we have

to find sponsors. I always sponsor this trip to Cambodia [for the Thai-Cambodian

Friendship competition] which is normally in Siem Reap.

Do you have any other interesting hobbies?

I have retired now. My two main interests are collecting antiquities and bodybuilding.

They are poles apart. But I enjoy them both.

What motivates you to donate pieces from your collection of antiquities?

This is the third piece I have donated. In 2002 I gave a stone sculpture to the Museum,

a 10th century stone kneeling figure. In 2004 I gave a silver bowl with gold rim

with an inscription on it. I found it with a dealer in the US who didn't recognize

what it was. It was from Jayavarman VII's reign, he had donated the bowl to honor

one of the gods. I had the inscription read by the museum in Phnom Penh and then

I decided to give it to them. The stone figure I gave in 2002 was received by Princess

Bophadevi who was minister of culture at the time. I once found a picture of her

at 13, dressed up in her ballet clothes, and I had a print made out and gave it to

her. She signed it and gave it to me as a gift to thank me for the donation.

If a piece is in my collection which I keep in London then why not let the rest of

world enjoy it. The gold set probably belonged to Jayavarman VII. I feel strongly

pieces should be in the place they belong. In the speech I gave at the hand over

I urged others to donate back too. I know most of the world wide collectors. No one

has come forward yet, they seem a bit reluctant.

Will you donate more pieces?

Yes. I'd like to donate a Khmer bronze. I mentioned to [Deputy Prime Minister] Sok

An at the ceremony that I would like to donate more pieces. He asked when.

Why is it so important to give Khmer artifacts to Cambodia?

A necklace and a fragment of belt were the only pieces of gold the National Museum

of Cambodia had and they were lost at the time of the civil war. The safe was blown

open and the only two pieces of gold they had were stolen. One can give a ring but

I thought this [royal regalia] much more significant. It is being placed in the museum's

main hall-turn left as you come in and walk to end of that room, they will be just

before the pre-Angkorian stone section.

Photos supplied

One of the statues restituted.

Where did you find these particular antiquities?

I found them in Europe in a collection with a dealer. That was 22 years ago. They

are both important to me. They were the only gold set I had. But also it was significant

for what it is-recognizable as being something used by Jayavarman VII.

Have you spent much time in Cambodia previously?

I was there two weeks before the Khmer Rouge came in, I was almost abducted. I got

into a taxi and was trying to go to the Swedish Embassy. Then two guys got in on

each side of me. I felt warning bells ringing, I was very uncomfortable and so I

pushed them out and got out of taxi. I rang the Ambassador and he said they must

have seen I was wearing a nice watch and were probably planning to kidnap me. It

was a difficult time then. I used to come here often though, to go to see the museum.

Let's go back to bodybuilding. What are the problems facing the sport here?

No one is interested in Cambodian bodybuilding. I am trying to help them find sponsors

to get to Hong Kong. One of the bodybuilders-Sok Sopheak-he could get top five if

he trains. They don't use steroids. In Asia they are very strict about athletes using

drugs. Cambodian bodybuilders certainly don't use steroids-they don't even have money

for food supplements. I bamboozled the Raffles in Phnom Penh into giving them chicken

and eggs before the last competition. It took some persuading and negotiating but

they agreed to supply the team with boiled chicken and eggs-really, just the hotel's

leftovers, it wasn't like they were asking for caviar-on a daily basis for two months

before the competition. Sok Sopheak did very well- he is the best they have.

Is bodybuilding a growing sport?

The bodybuilding at the South East Asian games went well. Thailand got four medals.

This has started to happen since I became involved - before then they could only

compete at small events which were held at the weekend in temples. We are always

looking for sponsors. On this trip I raised $4,000 for the Cambodian team. In July

the Asian Championships will be held in Hong Kong. I want to send one Thai and one

Cambodian to compete.

Is this a good sport for Asians?

Yes, it is easy for Cambodians and Thais to succeed. In Western countries people

are larger so they excel in the heavier classes -85 kilos and upwards. But in Europe

it is rare to find many low weight athletes. South East Asians can really do well

internationally in the lighter weight categories.

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