New York

‘It’s like a returning of the souls of our culture’

More than two dozen centuries-old artifacts from Cambodia were put on display Monday by the U.S. Attorney’s office — part of a pilfered haul of antiquities seized by the feds in an ongoing art trafficking investigation.

Among the stolen treasures was a 3-ton statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, which more than 1,000 years ago watched over an ancient Cambodian city and was now being readied to be returned to its motherland.

“The Ganesha, as well as the beautiful Skanda on a Peacock, which we also have here today, once stood at the archeological site of Koh Ker, the capital of the ancient Khmer empire in Cambodia,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams at a ceremony announcing the seizures of the priceless relics and 28 others like them.

“Today, we celebrate the return of Cambodia’s cultural heritage to the Cambodian people and reaffirm our commitment to reducing the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities.”

The feds seized the sacred sculptures of extraordinary cultural significance, dating from the Bronze Age to the 12th century, during three civil forfeiture actions stemming from an ongoing investigation. They were looted from temples and palaces in the late 20th century during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia by networks affiliated with the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

Most of the pieces were trafficked to the Thailand border and then into the international art market through back channels. Many that were ripped straight from the ground remain encrusted in minerals, Williams said.

“It’s like a returning of the souls of our culture back to our peoples. We really are grateful,” said the Cambodian ambassador to the U.S., Keo Chhea, who attended the ceremony to accept the statues on behalf of the Southeast Asian nation.

The sandstone sculptures surrounding Williams and Chhea were acquired by the notorious Bangkok-based British art scholar and smuggler Douglas Latchford, the feds say. He died in August 2020, not long after his indictment by the U.S. government for creating false provenance documents and falsifying other documents, leaving the stolen treasures “scattered all over the world,” said Williams.

Authorities say he resold the stolen artworks to western art dealers, wealthy private collectors, and museums.

Latchford sold some of the relics he illegally acquired over the decades to prestigious institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Washington Post reported in 2021, and others worldwide. But the feds wouldn’t say which person or establishment possessed the pieces presented on Monday.

An unnamed American art collector had 27 of the 30 recently-seized sculptures and agreed to relinquish them, Williams said. Investigators identified one of the pieces, a Bronze buddha from the 6th century, in an email attachment Latchford sent advertising its sale.

Ambassador Chhea said the sculptures’ plundering had presented several challenges despite their return. Thieves removed the artworks from their environments before sites could be studied and the artifacts’ content appraised. He said sculptures that lay “undisturbed and in perfect condition for centuries” were broken by tools used indiscriminately by the looters.

“The damage from the looted antiquities goes far beyond the theft itself,” said Chhea. “As evident by the number of sculptures found with missing limbs, hands, or heads.”

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