US returns looted relics of ‘extraordinary cultural value’ to Cambodia


Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

New York authorities have returned 30 cultural artifacts to Cambodia, including a 10th-century Khmer sculpture “masterpiece,” after the items were illegally sold to private collectors and a US museum.

Antiquities taken from temples and archaeological sites during the country’s civil conflict entered the international art market through an “organized looting network,” according to the US Department of Justice.

On Monday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York hosted a return ceremony for the works, attended by Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Keo Chea.

A 10th-century sandstone statue of “Skanda on a Peacock” is among the 30 items returned to Cambodia. Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

“These statues and artefacts, dating from the Bronze Age to the 12th century, are of extraordinary cultural value to the people of Cambodia and we are delighted to send them home today,” said prosecutor Damian Williams at a press conference.

Artifacts include “Skanda on a Peacock”, a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of the Hindu war god Skanda, which was stolen in the 1990s from the Prasat Krachop Temple at the archaeological site of Koh Ker.

Among the returned items was a three-ton sculpture of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha — a statue listed among the Antiquities Union’s 10 “most-wanted” looted artifacts — as well as a 6th- or 7th-century bronze Buddha.
Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Lee Satterfield, is pictured with some of the looted artifacts during Monday's repatriation ceremony.

Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Lee Satterfield, is pictured with some of the looted artifacts during Monday’s repatriation ceremony. Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The retrieval of these items, many of which were voluntarily returned by a private collector, is part of an ongoing investigation into Southeast Asian artefacts bought and sold by the late antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford. Latchford, once considered a leading scholar of Khmer art, was accused by US prosecutors of smuggling artworks and defrauding clients from private collectors to major corporations.
“For years, Douglas Latchford operated an illegal enterprise of smuggling looted antiquities into the United States in defiance of U.S. customs laws,” said Ricky J. Patel said in a statement in January. “Latchford facilitated this by falsifying customs documentation and providing collectors with deceptive documents to sell on the international art market.”
In 2014, a 10th-century statue linked to Latchford was withdrawn from auction and returned to Cambodia after investigators concluded it had been illegally removed from a temple during the country’s civil war. Five years later, US prosecutors charged Latchford with wire fraud and trafficking but he died in Thailand in 2020 before answering the charges.
A 10th-century sandstone sculpture painted in front of a repatriation ceremony in New York City.

A 10th-century sandstone sculpture painted in front of a repatriation ceremony in New York City. Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

At Monday’s repatriation ceremony, Ambassador Chea told Reuters that the antiquities would be displayed at the National Museum of Cambodia in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Addressing reporters at a press conference, he said, “We have to remain committed and continue our struggle to protect the soul of our cultural heritage and prevent further looting, looting and spiriting away of the precious antiquities from the country.”

“We know this problem is much deeper than the activity of one person,” Cheya added. “This is a global issue involving wealthy collectors, private dealers, gallery owners and some of the world’s most prestigious venues.”



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