Thirty looted antiquities, dating from the Bronze Age to the 12th century and trafficked by the notorious late British dealer Douglas Latchford, were returned to Cambodia in a ceremony that took place Monday, August 9. The rite was staged at the Manhattan offices of the US attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Among the artifacts that were formally returned include “Skanda on a Peacock,” a 10th-century sandstone statue stolen from the Prasat Krachap temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia in 1997 and widely considered a masterpiece. Also transferred was a three-ton sculpture of Ganesha, a beloved Hindu god recognizable by his elephant head, also stolen from Koh Ker. The Ganesha sculpture wasn’t physically present at the ceremony because officials worried it could break the elevators in the building.
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The repatriation of the Ganesha sculpture marks the first of the Antiquities Coalition’s “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities” — an advocacy campaign to restore some of the world’s most important stolen and lost artifacts — to be returned. The sculpture was found in the collection of James H. Clark, founder of Netscape, who in total relinquished 35 antiquities that investigators identified as stolen. “It’s hard for people to give up something they paid for, but for me, why would you want to own something that was stolen?” Clark was quoted as saying in an interview with the New York Times.
“We’re thrilled that the Ganesha, as well as the Skanda on a Peacock and so many other pieces, are now being returned home to the people of Cambodia,” Deborah Lerr, founder of the Antiquities Coalition, said in a statement. “This success demonstrates what wonderful things we can accomplish when governments, law enforcement, advocates, and responsible leaders in the art market work together.”
This set of returns is the result of an ongoing investigation into Latchford’s dealings. The art dealer, who died in 2020, was known during his lifetime for being “a cultured accumulator of museum-quality Khmer sculptures and jewels.” He was even granted high honors by the Cambodian government for his philanthropy to state museums and was offered citizenship. But in the final year of his life, federal prosecutors charged him with looting and falsifying provenance documents. They furthered that Latchford was an opportunist who capitalized on the chaos of Cambodia’s genocide and civil war to smuggle antiquities out of the country.
“For years, Douglas Latchford operated an illegitimate enterprise by smuggling looted antiquities into the United States with blatant disregard for US Customs laws,” Ricky J. Patel, a special agent at Homeland Security Investigations, said in a statement in January. “Latchford facilitated this by falsifying customs documentation and providing deceptive paperwork to collectors for sale on the international art market.”
Cambodian officials present at the ceremony reiterated their persistence in tracking down illicitly looted antiquities and bringing them back. “We know that this problem goes much further, deeper than the activity of one man,” said Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Keo Chhea. “It is a global problem that involves wealthy collectors, private dealers, gallery owners and even some of the world’s most prestigious places.”