Stolen Khmer art will return to Cambodia, museum says

Four pieces of ancient Khmer art held for years in the collection of a U.S. museum will go back to Cambodia following news that the items were illegally sold, U.S. officials and a museum spokesman said.

Dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, three of the pieces displayed at the Denver Art Museum in Colorado depict religious themes, while the fourth, a bronze bell, dates from the Iron Age, according to a civil complaint filed Monday by the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York.

All will be returned to Cambodia, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the museum, which had kept the objects on display, has “voluntarily relinquished possession of the antiquities” purchased from late art dealer Douglas Latchford, who had procured them in Cambodia under questionable circumstances.

“As alleged, Douglas Latchford papered over the problematic provenance of Cambodian antiquities with falsehoods,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its statement, adding, “Eradicating the illegal trade in stolen antiquities requires the vigilance of all parties in the art market, especially cultural institutions.”

Khmer antiquities looted in Cambodia are shown in a photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Theft of the objects was revealed last month by an international investigation by a team of journalists called The Pandora Papers that uncovered tax documents showing how wealthy individuals including Latchford had hidden wealth overseas.

An indictment against Latchford for trafficking in antiquities looted by others from Cambodian temples and archeological sites was dismissed in September 2020 following his death, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

A 7th-8th century sandstone lintel looted in Cambodia is shown in a photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Denver Art Museum welcomed news of the civil complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to a Nov. 8 report by The Denver Post.

“Ensuring proper ownership of antiquities is an obligation the museum takes seriously, and the museum is grateful that these pieces will be returning to their rightful home,” a museum spokesman said, quoted in the Post.

“The works are still in the care of the museum until the next step of the process to transfer them,” the museum said.

Spokespeople for the Cambodian government were not available for comment Tuesday.

Cambodia was known as the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to the 15th century. The powerful Hindu/Buddhist empire at its peak ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia, leaving behind its majestic capital Angkor, famed for the Angkor Wat temple complex.

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