PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - After three years of negotiations with the late controversial art collector Douglas Latchford and his family, more than 100 Cambodian artifacts will be returned to Cambodia, according to the government.
How Latchford, a British art collector and co-author of three books on Cambodian art and antiques, built his collection was a topic of art world speculation. He faced accusations of trafficking the artifacts to his homes in Bangkok and London. In November 2019, federal prosecutors in New York City charged Latchford with falsifying the provenance, invoices and shipping documents to transport valuable Khmer-era relics to private collections, museums and auction houses across the world.
At the time, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “As alleged, Latchford built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archeological sites, in the international art market.”
Accusations notwithstanding, the Cambodian government embraced Latchford, who occasionally returned antiques from his collection to the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Latchford died in August 2020 and bequeathed his entire collection to Nawapan Kriangsak, his daughter. The prosecution ended with his death. Latchford denied trafficking throughout his life, according to The Art Newspaper.
The Cambodian government released a statement last week saying Kriangsak had decided to return all the artifacts to Cambodia, where they will be displayed in a new installation near the National Museum.
Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister for culture and fine arts, said it was a “complex task” to get back the artifacts, many of which date back to the Khmer Empire, which flourished from 802 CE to 1431 CE, and may be best known for the Angkor temple complex. The artifacts constitute the “greatest [collection] of Khmer cultural heritage outside of Cambodia,” the ministry said in a statement issued Jan. 29.
“The return to Cambodia of these pieces underlines Cambodia’s commitment to the repatriation of its cultural property. Their return is an incredible event for the Cambodian people and the world,” the minister said in the statement.
The first shipment of five artifacts is expected to arrive in late February or early March. Cambodian authorities anticipate these will include a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of Hindu deities Shiva and Skanda, a 12th-century sandstone sculpture of Prajnaparamita – a female deity worshipped during the Khmer Empire – and a bronze statue of a male deity from the late 11th century.
Kriangsak said she didn’t anticipate the complexity of the lengthy negotiations.
“I am delighted that this complete collection, gathered over many decades, will be returned to their ancestral home in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” she said in the same Culture Ministry statement.
In an interview with The New York Times published last week, Kriangsak skirted questions about the accusations and charges levelled against Latchford.
“Despite what people say or accuse against Douglas, my father started his collection in a very different era, and his world has changed,” she told The New York Times.
Kriangsak agreed to return the antiques to Cambodia because of their religious significance to the Cambodian people. Her decision follows that of a Japanese collector, Fumiko Takakuwa, who in 2019, returned 85 artifacts and small bronze statues, some of which predated than the Angkor era, according to The Associated Press.
Cambodia has made efforts to identify relics displayed in collections and museums overseas, and lobbied for the return of artifacts, which have cultural and historical importance.
The U.S. Southern District of New York indictment set forth the situation that made Cambodia’s art ripe for looting: “From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, Cambodia experienced continuous civil unrest and regular outbreaks of civil war. During these times of extreme unrest, Cambodian archeological sites from the ancient Khmer Empire, such as Angkor Wat and Koh Ker, suffered serious damage and widespread looting. This looting was widely publicized and well-known to participants in the international art market.”
The indictment alleges that Latchford intentionally faked the provenance of antiquities that were the “product of looting, unauthorized excavation, and illicit smuggling” to encourage the sales and boost the prices of merchandise he was putting on the international market.
United States federal law enforcement authorities worked with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in 2020 to return two statues that were confiscated from an auction house in California in 2017. The U.S. and Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding to place import restrictions on archaeological artifacts being taken out of the country.
Hab Touch, secretary of state in charge of illicit trafficking and restitution at Cambodia’s Culture Ministry, said the government had negotiated with Douglas before he died last year.
“We had worked with [Kriangsak’s] father for a long time,” he said. “His daughter had the willingness and intention to return what she has got from her father to Cambodia.”
The official did not comment on the accusations and charges against Latchford.
Thuy Chanthourn, who has researched Cambodian artifacts for 30 years, said many artifacts were lost most recently during the civil war in the 1970s and 1980 but also during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Our ancient objects are not only with Douglas. There are many in Thailand, England, the U.S. and France. They are privately owned,” he said.
The artifact researcher claimed that Latchford did not steal the artifacts himself but that they were trafficked to Thailand, which is one of the biggest markets for Cambodian relics.
Vong Sotheara, a professor of history at the state-run Royal University of Phnom Penh, said numerous Cambodian artifacts remained in private collections, with many people having small museums to display their antiques.
“The rich and millionaires spend their money buying authentic old objects from Cambodia as a hobby,” he said, adding that it was a long process to prove the provenance of these objects so they could be returned to Cambodia.