Controversial art dealer's daughter will return over 100 antiquities to Cambodia
Published 12th February 2021
Credit: Matthew Hollow/Royal Government of Cambodia
Controversial art dealer's daughter will return over 100 antiquities to Cambodia
When art dealer Douglas Latchford was charged with wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy, US prosecutors not only alleged that he had trafficked stolen Cambodian antiquities -- he had "built a career" on it.
The indictment, brought before a New York court in 2019, claimed the British collector was part of an organized looting network that faked records for items it had taken or illicitly excavated from archaeological sites like Angkor Wat. Considered one of the world's foremost authorities on art from the Khmer Empire, which ruled between the 9th and 15th centuries, Latchford had served as "a conduit" for stolen treasures since the 1970s, according to court documents.
He died in Thailand in 2020, aged 88, before answering the charges. But now the late dealer's daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, has promised to return all of the Cambodian artifacts that she inherited from her father. Consisting of at least 100 statues and carvings, the collection is considered of such cultural significance that the country's national museum in Phnom Penh is being expanded to accommodate it.
Cambodia's Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, told CNN that news of the items' return had produced a "magical feeling."
"Our culture and our statues are not just wood and clay, they possess spirits, and they have senses," she said in a video interview, via a translator. "The pieces themselves want to come back to their country."
Of the items pledged, 25 have already been returned, according to Bradley J. Gordon, a legal advisor to the Cambodian government who helped negotiate the deal. The rest will be sent in batches, he said, with a further five due to arrive in the coming weeks. While the government has announced that over 100 objects are being returned, Gordon said over the phone that the final number will be "much higher" when smaller items are included in the evolving inventory.
Among those being sent next is a sandstone depiction of the deity Prajnaparamita and a bronze carving of a legendary Garuda bird. Also included is a prized 10th-century depiction of the Hindu god Shiva and his first-born son Skanda, a statue the Cambodian government believes to be from the remote Koh Ker temple complex. The item had previously featured on the cover of a book co-authored by Latchford, one of three respected publications on Khmer art produced by the controversial dealer during his lifetime.
Sackona said that her department would continue to investigate how the items came to leave the country. She would not, however, comment on the charges brought against Latchford. Nor would 49-year-old Kriangsak, who in a statement to CNN said that, upon her father's death last August, she "inherited a collection but also a conversation."
"Over the last few years I became increasingly convinced that the best way to deal with this legacy would be to give all his Khmer art, irrespective of origin, to the people of Cambodia," she said. "Many of the returned statues and other objects have impeccable provenance. However, I decided not to discriminate between those for which I know about the provenance and those that I don't. It's all going home."
The murky market for Khmer antiques results from the social and political upheaval that ravaged Cambodia in the latter half of the 20th century. With invasions and civil conflict falling either side of a 1970s genocide carried out by former prime minister Pol Pot's barbarous Khmer Rouge, protecting cultural heritage was rarely a priority in the country.
Looters took full advantage of the instability. Statues and architectural elements were taken directly from temples and archaeological sites, often crossing the border to Thailand before finding their way onto the international art market.
The total number of items taken from Cambodia will likely never be known, and a "red list" published by the International Council of Museums warns of a huge range of objects at risk of being illicitly traded -- from elaborate friezes to small beads, adornments and utensils. In a 2014 study from the British Journal of Criminology, a broker of illegal artifacts told researchers that his group alone had trafficked 92 statues between mid-1997 and mid-1998, as the Khmer Rouge movement collapsed. Another study found that, of the 377 Khmer pieces put up for sale by Sotheby's auction house between 1988 and 2010, more than 70% had no published ownership history.
Sotheby's did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
Latchford, who held both British and Thai citizenship, always denied allegations of wrongdoing. In 2010, he reportedly told the Bangkok Post newspaper that "most of the pieces I have come across have been found or dug up by farmers in fields." His daughter meanwhile told CNN: "My father bought his Khmer artifacts from auction houses, collectors and dealers of every kind, all over the world."
Despite question marks around his activities, the Khmer items he acquired and sold found their way into leading museums and private collections, passing through major auction houses in the process. But with Cambodia now enjoying a long period of relative stability, and tourism responsible for more than 20% of the country's GDP, the government has stepped up efforts to repatriate items taken from the ancient temples visitors now flock to. The drive coincides with growing calls for Western museums -- especially those of former colonial powers -- to give back treasures taken illicitly or by force.
In 2013, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two 10th-century stone statues, donated by Latchford in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in light of "new documentary research." But the museum's vast collection still contains at least six items once held by Latchford, according to its online records. The institution has not yet responded to CNN's request for comment.
Elsewhere, the Cleveland Museum of Art has three items -- of both Cambodian and Thai origin -- once owned by Latchford, though none were directly acquired from him. A spokesperson said the museum has a "strong, collaborative" relationship with Cambodia, and is set to borrow a number of Khmer artifacts from the country for an exhibition this autumn. The Denver Museum of Art, which holds six of Latchford's objects, meanwhile said that it has recently opened discussions with Cambodian authorities. "The museum proactively contacted cultural officials in Cambodia regarding these pieces about a year ago," a museum spokesperson said via email, "and our dialogue with Cambodia remains ongoing about their provenance."
Despite growing suspicions about Latchford's activities in the Western art world, he continued to enjoy more favorable standing in Cambodia. Having previously donated items to the national museum in Phnom Penh, he was awarded the Royal Order of Monisaraphon, the country's equivalent of a knighthood, in 2008.
His daughter, Kriangsak, said that in addition to returning artifacts, she is also sharing her father's records with Cambodian authorities. Investigating the collection's provenance is now, she added, "the job of the archaeologists and researchers at the Ministry of Culture."
None of the parties involved in negotiations would put an estimate on the collection's monetary value, reported by the New York Times to be more than $50 million. "I've seen the estimated values, and people can evaluate the statues and determine the price," said Sackona, the culture minister. "But to me, and other Cambodians, we cannot put a price on ... the blood and sweat of our ancestors and the values of our gods."
The politician said she hoped that the agreement will "send a message" to those still in possession of Cambodia's cultural heritage. She described Kriangsak as a "role model" for other collectors and museums.
Not everyone familiar with the case is so sanguine about the late collector's family, however. While welcoming the objects' restitution, the CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), Lynda Albertson, suggested that Kriangsak is motivated by protecting her family's reputation, saying in a phone interview: "If she was looking to right the wrongs of her father, she would have clearly stated: 'I am doing this because (how he acquired the items) was wrong."
Albertson also said that other areas of Latchford's collection -- artifacts from India, in particular -- should also be investigated, though Kriangsak declined to comment on the matter.
Latchford's daughter did, however, claim that her father had indicated a willingness to return his Khmer items prior to his death. The dealer was alive when talks began three years ago, though, having been diagnosed with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, his involvement was limited by his ailing health. By the time of the 2019 charges "his mind had gone," Kriangsak added, saying that her father "was never aware of the indictment and never understood that there were specific charges, and he certainly couldn't answer them or defend himself.
"Nobody could be expected to be consistent in the face of those health issues, and the future of his collection was a vexed issue," she added, claiming that: "Many times my father told me and others that he would like major statues to return to Cambodia."
Latchford's true motivations and the nature of his acquisitions may never come to light. Nonetheless, ARCA's Albertson suggested that the decision to return the treasures might yet lead to further restitution, with items handled by the late dealer still in collections around the world.
"As long as Latchford's name comes up in the provenance (or) history of objects, it will make them toxic in terms of resale," she added. "So, this might create a sense of 'let's give it back or let's create some good press,' or some feelings of goodwill between different collectors. But that remains to be seen."
Pictured top: A 10th century statue of the deity Ardhanarishvara