Antiquities

Looted Antiquities to be Returned to Cambodia

A total of 30 stolen relics, including some of the world’s most valuable antiquities, are to be returned to Cambodia from America.
Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy
Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy

The United States has agreed to return 30 of the world’s most prized Cambodian antiquities after they were stolen from historic sites.

Seven masterpieces of Cambodia's ancient heritage were exhibited, including "Skanda on a Peacock", an ancient sandstone statue that investigators believe was stolen in 1997 from a temple by Khmer Rouge conscripts.

According to the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, another piece is a 10th century sculpture depicting the Hindu elephant god Ganesha.

"The ganesha is one of the antiquities coalitions, it is the most 10 wanted looted antiquities and it happens to weigh over three tons," Williams said in a press conference on Monday in New York.

Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy
Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy

Willams added that the archeological sites originate from the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire. A further 28 artifacts were stolen from Koh Ker and other archeological sites during the civil war and instability in Cambodia.

To investigate, Williams organized looting networks, including looters affiliated with the Khmer Rouge who sent these statues to well-known antiquities dealer, Douglas Latchford.

“Mr Latchford sold these priceless cultural artifacts to western dealers, collectors, and institutions,” said Williams.

In connection with a criminal investigation involving Latchford, federal prosecutors in New York and the Department of Homeland Security returned the relics. An American museum and two individuals were seized as owners of the artifacts. Investigators worked with all three of them.

In 2019, after a year of investigation, the US office indicted Latchford for his decades-long scheme to sell stolen Cambodian art to the western art market.

“The 30 pieces that we’re returning today come from that investigation, which is still ongoing, and each of the sculptures has its own journey and story,” said Williams.

“One of the sculptures here today, a bronze Buddha from the 6th to 7th centuries, was first observed by investigators in a photograph attached to an email that Latch sent advertising at sale.”

The photograph shows the statue crusted in minerals, essentially fresh from excavation and 25 other Cambodian antiquities in the hands of a private American collector who agreed to voluntarily relinquish the artworks after he was approached by the government.

Williams thanked HSI for its investigative work on the case, Border Protection for its invaluable assistance, and the team of Cambodian researchers who helped develop the historical and factual records.

Ricky Patel, Deputy Special Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations(HSI), said the return of these priceless antiquities to Cambodia is returning lost treasures to their rightful place.

“These 30 antiquities returned today were ripped from their country. Beyond their extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, many are sacred artifacts, pride from temples and palaces,” Patel said.

Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy
Some of Cambodian looted antiquities on display during a press conference in New York. Kiripost/via US Embassy

Lee Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs(ECA) said that returning the Skanda sculpture and other priceless antiquities to the people of Cambodia is bringing them back to their rightful place.

“They’ll now return to their home as vibrant examples of Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage for the enjoyment of the people of Cambodia and visitors from all around the world.”

Keo Chhea, Cambodian Ambassador to the United States, said that returning heritage back to Cambodia is like “returning the souls of our culture back to our people.”

“We need to commit and to continue our fight to protect our soul of cultural heritage, and prevent the priceless antiquity from being further plunders looted and spitted away from the country,” Chhea said at the news conference.

Last month, a Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Cambodian governments was formed to combat and recover the artifacts and stolen art called heritage.

Chhea said, “The Royal Government of Cambodia vigorously pursues the return of the stolen cultures property no matter where it is, when it obtains evidence and stolen the item.”

“We strongly hope that the United States will continue to partner with Cambodia. We can put an end to the illegal trafficking of the artifacts and return our cultural heritage back to their own place.”

The event highlighted the importance of the U.S.-Cambodia cultural heritage cooperation made possible through the countries’ cultural property agreement, the only such agreement between the United States and an ASEAN member state.

The United States Embassy Cambodia said through collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodian and American partners, the United States has protected, preserved, and honored Cambodia's rich cultural heritage for more than 20 years.

Over $5 million has been provided by the United States for cultural preservation efforts in Cambodia since 2001. This includes $3.5 million for the restoration and conservation of the 9th century Phnom Bakheng Temple, the US Embassy Cambodia added.