Cambodia welcomes New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's plan to return looted pieces

The Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to return looted artwork. Credit: AP

Cambodia has welcomed the announcement that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will return more than a dozen pieces of ancient artwork.

The Manhattan museum plans to return pieces to Cambodia and Thailand that were tied to an art dealer and collector accused of running a huge antiquities trafficking network out of Southeast Asia.

Fourteen Khmer sculptures will be returned to Cambodia and two will be returned to Thailand, the museum announced on Friday, though no specific timeline was given.

This most recent repatriation of artwork comes as many museums in the US and Europe reckon with collections that contain objects looted from Asia, Africa and other places during centuries of colonialism or in times of upheaval.

"We appreciate this first step in the right direction," Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said in a statement.

"We look forward to further returns and acknowledgements of the truth regarding our lost national treasures, taken from Cambodia in the time of war and genocide."

Cambodia suffered from war and the brutal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s, causing disorder that opened the opportunity for its archaeological treasures to be looted.

The repatriation of the ancient pieces was linked to well-known art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for allegedly orchestrating a multiyear scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market.

Latchford, who died the following year, had denied any involvement in smuggling.

The museum initially cooperated with the US attorney’s office in Manhattan and the New York office of Homeland Security Investigations on the return of 13 sculptures tied to Latchford before determining there were three more that should be repatriated.

A bronze sculpture titled "Standing Shiva" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the pieces to be returned. Credit: AP

"As demonstrated with today’s announcement, pieces linked to the investigation of Douglas Latchford continue to reveal themselves,” HSI Acting Special Agent in Charge Erin Keegan said in a statement on Friday.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art has not only recognized the significance of these 13 Khmer artifacts, which were shamelessly stolen, but has also volunteered to return them, as part of their ongoing cooperation, to their rightful owners: the People of Cambodia."

This isn’t the first time the museum has repatriated art linked to Latchford. In 2013, it returned two objects to Cambodia.

The Latchford family also had a load of centuries-old Cambodian jewelry in their possession that they later returned to Cambodia.

In February, 77 pieces of jewellery made of gold and other precious metal pieces - including items such as crowns, necklaces and earrings - were returned to their homeland. Other stone and bronze artifacts were returned in September 2021.

Pieces being returned include a bronze sculpture called The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease, made sometime between the late 10th century and early 11th century.

Another piece of art, made of stone in the seventh century and named Head of Buddha, will also be returned. Those pieces are part of 10 that can still be viewed in the museum’s galleries while arrangements are made for their return. Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia's Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said in a statement: "These returns contribute to the reconciliation and healing of the Cambodian people who went through decades of civil war and suffered tremendously from the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and to a greater strengthening of our relationship with the United States."

Research efforts were already underway by the museum to examine the ownership history of its objects, focusing on how ancient art and cultural property changed hands, as well as the provenance of Nazi-looted artwork.

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