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 to the 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, which 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.”
A bronze statue of a male deity dating back to the late 11th century. Credit: Matthew Hollow/Royal Government of Cambodia
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.
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.”
Cambodia’s government believes that this 10th-century statue, depicting the Hindu god Shiva and his first-born son Skanda, came from the remote Koh Ker temple complex. Credit: Matthew Hollow/Royal Government of Cambodia
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 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.
Sotheby’s did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
This bronze carving of a legendary Garuda bird would have adorned a ship. Credit: Matthew Hollow/Royal Government of Cambodia
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.”
Cambodia’s late deputy Prime Minister Sok An shakes hands with Douglas Latchford during a function at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Latchford repatriated a number of Khmer antiquities during the event. Credit: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images
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.”
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.”
A sandstone depiction of the deity Prajnaparamita is among the next items to arrive in Cambodia. Credit: Matthew Hollow/Royal Government of Cambodia
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