The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) have announced plans for the return of 28 looted Cambodian cultural artefacts in the near future after a private collector voluntarily relinquished possession of the antiquities.
All of the artefacts were purchased from or linked to the controversial antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford who was under indictment in the US for trafficking in stolen antiquities prior to his death in 2020. Latchford’s daughter subsequently agreed to return all of the Cambodian antiquities she then inherited from her father’s estate.
The culture ministry said the SDNY and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – the principal investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security – filed a civil forfeiture action against the private collector regarding 28 Cambodian cultural artefacts the US government had seized.
According to the ministry, the artefacts include a large Ganesha believed to be removed only two decades ago from Prasat Bak temple within the Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vihear province.
“This sculpture of Ganesha is another astonishing example of the brilliance of our ancestors. Ganesha, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head, is widely known for his wisdom and power to overcome obstacles and its return home will be a momentous occasion for Cambodia,” said culture minister Phoeurng Sackona.
The Koh Ker Ganesha is listed by The Antiquities Coalition as one of the top 10 “most wanted” looted statues in the world.
“This repatriation shows Cambodia’s continuing commitment to finding and bringing back our ancestors’ souls that departed from their motherland over a number of years, including during a period of war,” she added.
Sackona said some of the other statues in the collection are a sandstone Buddha sculpture from the 7th-8th century, a 10th century Hindu god Vishnu and a 10th century bronze image of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
“We are thrilled that this major private collector agreed to cooperate with US authorities and return such a large collection of statues acquired from the late collector/dealer Douglas A J Latchford,” Sackona said. “We encourage other private collectors and museums to follow this person’s lead and to contact us now to discuss repatriation to the rightful owner.”
According to the SDNY, the 28 Cambodian pieces were among a total of 35 cultural properties seized, along with seven others belonging to other countries such as India, Myanmar and Thailand.
The press statement said that Latchford sold the collection to the unnamed private collector by making false statements and faking provenance documents intended to hide the fact that the antiquities were the products of looting.
The collector chose not to contest the asset forfeiture in court and voluntarily relinquished possession of the antiquities following the filing of a civil complaint by SDNY US attorney Damian Williams and Ricky Patel, deputy special agent in charge at HSI New York.
“This office continues to trace and recover the many stolen cultural treasures that Douglas Latchford sold and scattered far from their home countries. Through this action, the US reaffirms its commitment to redressing the wrongs committed by Latchford and other looters who would exploit and profit from the pain and disruption of war,” said Williams.
Patel said that for many years, Latchford had operated an illegitimate enterprise by smuggling looted antiquities into the US “with blatant disregard” for customs laws. Latchford facilitated this by falsifying customs documentation and providing deceptive paperwork to collectors when putting the items up for sale on the international art market.
“Today, we are pleased to see that 35 pieces of cultural property will be repatriated to their rightful settings. HSI New York will not rest in its efforts to locate all of the antiquities related to Latchford’s fraud and see that each piece of history is not just found, but sent home,” Patel said.
Sackona thanked the SDNY, HSI and the US government along with authorities in Cambodia, the US embassy in Phnom Penh and the ministry’s team of archaeologists and researchers for securing this achievement.
She also thanked Bradley Gordon of the law firm Edenbridge Asia and Steven Heimberg of Heimberg Barr LLP for spending many years now helping ministry officials negotiate the return of Khmer cultural treasures and playing roles instrumental to the recovery of many invaluable cultural properties in collaboration with the ministry’s team.
“We are proud of our joint efforts, the cooperation between the governments of our two countries and their impact on restoring to our country important masterpieces of our cultural heritage for the benefit of all humanity and particularly Cambodia’s younger generation,” Sackona said.