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.
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.