US officials return Cambodian artefacts looted during the Khmer Rouge era

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Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States said Monday that U.S. law enforcement officials transferred 30 antiquities to his country as a return of “the souls of our culture.”

Ambassador Keo Chheya spoke at the event, where a 10th-century sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” was displayed among several artworks, as US and Cambodian officials explained the impact of the return of the 30 antiquities on the Southeast Asian nation.

“It’s like returning the souls of our culture to our people,” Cheya said. “We are very grateful.”

Chea praised the cooperation between the US and Cambodia to enable the return of the antiquities, but said they were struggling with a “global problem”.

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“We are committed and need to continue our fight” to prevent further looting and to stop looting of precious artefacts with tools used by looters, which sometimes lead to pieces of sculptures being cut off, he said.

According to US Attorney Damien Williams, some of the 10th-century sculptures depicting the 3-ton Hindu elephant god Ganesha were too heavy to bring to the ceremony.

People look at Cambodian antiquities recovered by the United States Attorney’s Office after a news conference in New York. Authorities announced the return of 30 illegally smuggled antiquities to Cambodia.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The sculptures were looted during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia, ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

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Organized looting networks, including looters affiliated with the Khmer Rouge, sent the statues to renowned antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, who then sold them to Western dealers, collectors and institutions.

Latchford died before he could be extradited to the United States to face charges of wire fraud conspiracy and other crimes in Manhattan federal court, the prosecutor noted. Eventually the indictment for his death was dismissed.

Some of the sandstone and bronze sculptures and artefacts were given up by their owners when US authorities said they were stolen, Williams said. Others claimed through court actions. They existed from the Bronze Age to the 12th century.

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“We appreciate the individuals and organizations who have decided to do the right thing and, after learning about the provenance of the antiquities in their possession, have decided to voluntarily return those pieces to their home countries,” Williams said. “We would like to encourage anyone who believes they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities to come forward.”

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