At Large  December 16, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

The Metropolitan Museum to Return Cambodian Artifacts Tied to Looting

Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease, Cambodia, late 10th–early 11th century. Detail.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Friday that it will be repatriating a total of sixteen sculptures to the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand after it was revealed a few years ago that they were part of an illegal trafficking of ancient artifacts. These works were tied to the late Met donor and dealer, Douglas A.J. Latchford, who was indicted before his death in 2020 for the trafficking of looted Cambodian relics and falsifying documents. The museum will temporarily display the sculptures while the return to their countries of origin are arranged.

According to the museum, after federal prosecutors accused Latchford in 2019, The Met reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to Cambodian officials to confirm the charges against Latchford and connect these sculptures with his trafficking actions. Once the museum received this confirmation, they signed an agreement to return the works to Cambodia and Thailand. In the end, Latchford was never officially indicted for looting, but for wire fraud, smuggling, and filing false customs documents, and he was comatose at the time of these charges. 

“The Met is pleased to enter into this agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and greatly values our open dialogue with Cambodia and Thailand," said Max Hollein, The Met's Director and CEO, in a statement. "We are committed to pursuing partnerships and collaborations with our colleagues there that will advance the world’s understanding and appreciation of Khmer art, and we look forward to embarking on this new chapter together.”

Of those being returned, all were made between the 9th and 14th centuries and represent the Hindu and Buddhist religious systems. One of the works, The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease, is known for its rare positioning of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. In the work, the deity is seated with their legs crossed in a meditation pose.

The Met is not the only institution with looted artifacts from Cambodia. In fact, more and more repatriation cases have come to light in recent years. In the 1960s and 1990s, there was widespread looting of archaeological sites while the country underwent civil conflicts and ever since, its government has worked to pursue the return of their antiquities. Just in September, the family of George Lindemann agreed to return 33 looted artifacts to Cambodia. And according to Reuters, in 2021, the United States returned 27 antiquities valued at about $3.8 million to Cambodia after New York investigators worked to recover the smuggled artifacts.

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