At the end of January, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced the most significant return ever of stolen antiquities to south-east Asia: more than 100 ancient Khmer objects with an estimated value of $50m assembled over the course of six decades by Douglas Latchford.
At his death in August 2020, Latchford was facing federal charges in the US for the alleged key role he played since the 1960s in the looting and trafficking of Khmer antiquities from Cambodia and Thailand. The investigations had begun to lay bare the direct links between the building of south-east Asian art collections in the west – including at some of America’s most revered cultural institutions – and the brutal destruction of the Khmer cultural heritage on the ground. His daughter inherited the collection and consented to their spectacular return. Latchford, a British citizen by birth, operated out of Bangkok and London. Though the full extent of the Latchford family Khmer antiquities holdings is still unclear, it is understood that it was split between these two locations.
The return has been framed by some as a “gift” to Cambodians. But rather than celebrating a daughter extricating herself from her judicial dragnets, we should be commending those who have worked tirelessly to uncover and prevent the egregious looting of antiquities and the trafficking networks involved: Cambodian authorities, US authorities, academics and NGOs, including Chasing Aphrodite, Trafficking Culture and Heritage Watch.
With increasingly well-established provenancing methodologies, legal frameworks and ethical codes of practice, it has become harder to envisage the industrial scale of international trafficking once seen out of Cambodia happening elsewhere. Thailand, encouraged by Cambodia’s successes over recent years, has stepped up its efforts to repatriate its looted art. Two 11th-century temple lintels are expected to arrive back in the country in March from the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Further repatriation requests are in motion. The rampant looting that has taken place in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East by Islamic State has also resulted in much closer scrutiny and surveillance of antiquities smuggling worldwide by governmental agencies in the west. A spotlight is now shining on the illicit dimensions of the antiquities trade.
The Cambodian announcement should be seen as a major victory for those who have advocated for stricter regulation of the international art market. Two pivotal moments in this fight were the belated decision in 2008 by the US Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums to adhere to the Unesco 1970 convention on the prohibition of trafficking of cultural property, and the high-profile legal battle over Khmer “Blood Antiquities” brought against Sotheby’s in 2012 by the Southern District of New York in consultation with the Cambodian government.
The successful resolution of the Sotheby’s case led to the 2014 return of a monumental 10th-century sculpture which had been brutally broken off its pedestal at Koh Ker temple in north-eastern Cambodia, where it had remained in situ for more than a millennium. The US court papers accused the “collector”, identified as Latchford, of purchasing the statue in the 1970s knowing it had just been looted from Koh Ker; consigning its sale to a London auction house; and conspiring with a Thai art dealer and the London business to fraudulently obtain an export licence. Thus began the decades-long travel of the statue, from Koh Ker to Bangkok to London to Belgium to New York, where Sotheby’s stood accused of knowingly providing inaccurate provenance information to potential buyers. The publicity surrounding the Sotheby’s case prompted a slew of further returns from major US museums: