The Journey of Stolen Cambodian Artifacts: How Did They End Up in American Museums?

The Journey of Stolen Cambodian Artifacts: How Did They End Up in American Museums?

Recently, Cambodia has been reclaiming its cultural heritage, especially artifacts that have ended up in other countries. However, these items didn't just find their way to museums around the world; they were stolen!

The theft of Cambodia's cultural treasures began during the French colonial period nearly a century ago but reached its peak in the 1970s to 1990s amid genocide and civil war. Most of these thefts were orchestrated by Douglas Latchford, a British citizen.

Latchford turned artifact theft into a global business. He not only hoarded artifacts for himself but also sold them to collectors and leading museums around the world. The Cambodian government has been working for the past decade to track down and repatriate these stolen artifacts to preserve the country's history and cultural heritage.

Looted Cambodian cultural artifacts Looted Cambodian cultural artifacts seized by U.S. Attorney's Office.  Photo by Reuters/Andrew Kelly

Traces of the theft are evident at Angkor Wat, a nearly thousand-year-old religious site. Although originally built to honor the Hindu deity Vishnu and later converted into a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat remains a place of worship. However, the effects of theft are evident in the numerous beheaded statues and partially stolen bodies. Empty spaces mark where the sacred statues once stood, some with only small parts of their feet remaining.

According to a CBS News report, American lawyer Brad Gordon, who has been working with the Cambodian government for ten years, has been tracking the theft of cultural treasures. Gordon revealed that the situation is even worse in Cambodia's 4,000 other temples, almost all of which have been targeted for theft. One badly affected temple is on the remote mountain of Sandak, a hundred miles northeast of Angkor Wat. Thieves have made off with gold, statues, and other precious treasures. Only a few things remain in the temple's crumbling courtyard, mostly empty pillars scattered among the Sralao foliage.

Gordon explained that when robbers come to places like this, they take the head first because it's the easiest part to grab. They may return to take the body parts, but due to their lack of caution, pieces are often left behind.

It's important to understand that the stolen statues in Cambodia have sacred significance to the people, as they are considered to be embodiments of gods and goddesses that hold the souls of ancestors. According to Cambodia's Minister of Culture, Phoeurng Sackona, these statues are a source of spiritual connection, a place to seek guidance and pray.

The 10th-century Skanda on a Peacock. Photo by Reuters/Andrew Kelly

The political instability in Cambodia since 1975, during the Khmer Rouge regime, created vulnerability to art thieves. More than two million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population, died in massacres or famine during this period. After the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, instability persisted, leaving Cambodia's temples vulnerable to amoral antiquities dealers like Douglas Latchford.

The art collector, who also sponsored Thai bodybuilders, was initially seen as a protector of Cambodian culture, donating some statues to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But he also used books as sales catalogs, many of which contained stolen items. These books became valuable guides for Brad Gordon's team as they compiled a database of thousands of missing artifacts.

Then, in 2012, they met Toek Tik, a worker in his twenties who turned out to be the main supplier of thousands of treasures to Douglas Latchford. Although they never met, Toek Tik admired these items in Latchford's books. Using the code name "Lion," he became the main secret source for Gordon's team, revealing in detail how robbers unearthed treasures in remote temples.

Lion, a former Khmer Rouge soldier and leader of the looting gang, provided hundreds of hours of testimony. He explained how groups of looters used various tools to locate and excavate treasures in remote temples. Lion never met Latchford but sent photos of artifacts for him to choose from.

A sandstone warrior statue from Koh Ker that appeared in a 2011 Sotheby's auction catalog caught the attention of U.S. law enforcement. Its base and feet matched those found at its original site in Cambodia. Sotheby's agreed to return the statue, and Latchford was eventually charged with smuggling and other offenses.

Cambodia celebrates the return of stolen artifacts 

Latchford was indicted by U.S. authorities in 2019 but died before trial. His family agreed to return his stolen private collection, including the Koh Ker statue, which was returned in 2021.

While many more stolen Cambodian artifacts remain scattered in museums and private collections around the world, the investigative efforts of Gordon's team have brought some of Cambodia's cultural heritage back home.

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