US returns 30 looted antiquities to Cambodia

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – American and Cambodian officials urged museums and private collectors on Monday (Aug 8) to investigate the origins of their Khmer art to determine whether it had been looted, and the officials demonstrated the pervasiveness of such thefts at an event that celebrated the return of 30 antiquities to Cambodia.

Lined up behind the officials were seven masterpieces of the country’s ancient heritage.

They included a 10th-century sandstone statue known as “Skanda on a Peacock”.

Investigators say it was stolen from a temple by a Khmer Rouge conscript and self-described looter in 1997.

The Cambodian government will also welcome back a 5-foot-tall (1.5m) sculpture of a Hindu god, Ganesha.

The 4-tonne sculpture was represented only in a poster on Monday.

There were fears it would break lifts at the Manhattan offices of the US lawyer for the Southern District of New York.

The antiquities that are being repatriated, the officials said, were all trafficked by an organised looting network and sold in the Western art market through Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British art dealer and collector of Cambodian antiquities. He died in 2020, less than a year after he had been charged with smuggling looted relics and concealing their tainted histories by falsifying documentation to help sell them.

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

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

Twenty-five of the antiquities that are being returned to Cambodia were surrendered by James H. Clark, the Internet pioneer and Netscape founder who said he had spent roughly US$35 million (S$48 million) in purchasing dozens of Cambodian and South-east Asian antiquities.

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

Four of the antiquities were surrendered by the Denver Art Museum.

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