The first five of the more than 100 stone and bronze Khmer antiquities being returned to Cambodia by the family of the controversial collector and dealer Douglas Latchford – who passed away last year in Thailand – have arrived in Phnom Penh, according to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Latchford – who styled himself a “rescuer” of antiquities rather than a looter – had already agreed to return some of his collection to Cambodia prior to his death from illness, which came while he was under felony indictment in the US and fighting his extradition there for his alleged decades-long involvement in trafficking stolen Khmer antiquities.
In a press statement, the ministry said the arrival of these antiquities was being carried out as part of the agreement for the return of Khmer cultural properties between the Cambodian government and Latchford’s family made in September last year, soon after his death.
“In this initial stage, five Khmer masterpieces – including a stone sculpture of Shiva and Skanda originally from Koh Ker, a half-male and half-female statue and a bronze boat prow will be returned from the UKto their homeland of Cambodia on September 29, 2021.
“These five statues will be taken to Cambodia’s National Museum in Phnom Penh for experts to evaluate, clean and repair them if necessary before putting them on display. Public exhibition of these national treasures will begin with a ceremony and launch event held at an appropriate time to be announced by the government,” it said.
Culture ministry spokesman Hab Touch told The Post on September 30 that the five statues arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport at 5pm and were safely on the grounds of the National Museum by 9pm. “The team working on the return of these items spent a lot of time and effort navigating through the legal procedures and making arrangements to begin bringing home [the collection] from the four countries where the items are located, and the Covid-19 pandemic made the job even harder.
“We made plans originally with the expectation that we’d be bringing these antiquities to Cambodia starting in March, but due to the pandemic interrupting travel and the lockdowns in some countries, their repatriation was delayed. But we’ve learned a lot from the experience and I think next time we’ll be able to get this done much faster,” he said.
According to Touch, Latchford’s huge collection of Khmer antiquities was said to be made up of the very best items he had acquired – which he almost always kept for himself – over his decades-long career as an antiquities dealer that began in the 1960’s. They were now spread out across the four countries, many of them on display in his homes.
This complicated their return because the ministry has had to collaborate with four different embassies and officials working under different laws on antiquities that can restrict their cross-border movement to prevent illegal trafficking if the foreign government’s authorisation is not first provided, he said.
Back in January, the culture ministry announced that following Latchford’s death – which came amid a three-year negotiation with him to return the collection – his daughter had decided to simply return the entirety of Latchford’s Khmer holdings, which consisted of over 100 ancient Khmer cultural artifacts rendered in stone, bronze and other mediums.
In June, the US government returned 27 Cambodian antiquities – including Angkorian Buddhist and Hindu statues – to Cambodia. The antiquities had been smuggled to the US and put on sale by black or gray market dealers and then recovered by US authorities during law enforcement operations.