Cambodian and US archaeologists on Thursday discussed the formalities and procedures of returning to Cambodia an artefact which was recently seized by US Homeland Security Investigators (HSI) from an auction house in San Francisco.
On Monday, the HSI said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and HSI San Francisco special agent David Keller, assisted by HSI New York special agent John Paul Labbat, seized a Cambodian artefact put up for auction in the bay area of San Francisco on September 12.
Its report said: “An ancient Cambodian sandstone sculpture was described as a Shiva and Uma statue dating back to 921-945 AD and valued at approximately $350,000.”
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Heritage Department director-general Prak Sovannara told The Post on Thursday that Cambodian specialists are now contacting culture experts at the US embassy in Phnom Penh to discuss procedures to return the artefact.
“We are really happy with efforts from the US side. They have always helped us search for and seize our ancient Cambodian artefacts from the hands of dishonest traders and return them to the Cambodian government,” he said.
However, Cambodian and US specialists are yet to be sure if the statue dates back to 921-945 AD or whether it is genuine or a replica.
The Ministry of Culture’s head of archaeology Heng Kamsan, who participated in the talks, said: “We are very excited to receive information and a photo from the US side on Wednesday.
“The photo indicates that the statue seized by their special agents from the auction house is an ancient cultural object with roots in our Khmer culture since early times,” he said.
Kamsan said on Thursday that specialists from the two countries had agreed to carry out carbon-14 dating on the Shiva and Uma statue.
This, he said, will make it easier to research and compile documents on its age and other data. He also expressed hope that the procedures to return the statue to the Kingdom will begin as soon as possible.
A report said the artefact was discovered during an ongoing HSI New York investigation dubbed “Indochinese Peninsula Plunder” in the Southern District of New York.
The investigation focused on the smuggling activities of Douglas Latchford, a private collector linked to numerous looted Cambodian antiquities.
The report said the statue was originally purchased by a private collector in California. It was put up for sale at a prominent San Francisco auction house following the collector’s death in 2015.
“It will be returned to the Cambodian people at the conclusion of this HSI-led investigation,” the report said.
The HSI had conducted multiple investigations and recovered looted artefacts which had been trafficked from several countries in Southeast Asia during eras of conflict throughout the 20th century.
HSI San Francisco and HSI New York had collaborated on multiple investigations linking antiquities dealers to a criminal network involved in looting artefacts from Southeast Asia, many of which had been found in museums and collections throughout the US.
The HSI is the largest investigative component of the US Department of Homeland Security. Among its numerous investigative programmes, the HSI conducts criminal investigations that involve the illicit trafficking of cultural property and art.
The HSI has a global reach through its 77 offices in 51 countries and works closely with foreign governments to conduct investigations.