Relics tied to alleged smuggler will return to Cambodia, U.S. museum says

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and federal prosecutors announced Friday that more than a dozen ancient relics in the museum’s collection will be returned to Cambodia.

The repatriation of the artworks follows years of questions regarding whether the Met’s collection contained pieces that Douglas Latchford, an alleged smuggler, had helped loot from Cambodia during its civil war.

A renowned art dealer, Latchford was indicted in 2019 for allegedly trafficking in pillaged items. He died awaiting trial.

In 2021, The Washington Post detailed Latchford’s role in the widespread ransacking of ancient Khmer sites, considered one of the worst cultural thefts of the 20th century, as part of the Pandora Papers reporting with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Eleven of the items to be returned by the Met were identified by The Post and the ICIJ as having Latchford ties.

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“Through the work of prosecutors at the Southern District of New York and intense press scrutiny, the nefarious dealings of Douglas Latchford in Cambodia have been revealed,” Max Hollein, the museum’s director, wrote in a letter to Cambodia’s culture minister, Phoeurng Sackona. “It is my great hope that the return of these treasures to you will be a foundation for future collaboration — that will allow us to responsibly display Khmer artwork.”

The Post and the ICIJ also previously reported Latchford’s ties to Khmer relics held in a private collection owned by a billionaire family, the Lindemanns, and in September, federal prosecutors in New York announced that the family had agreed to return 33 items to Cambodia.

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In announcing the Met’s agreement to return items Friday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams offered a warning to other institutions that may have looted items in their collections. The Post and the ICIJ previously identified nine other museums that had items in their collections that had passed through the hands of Latchford or his associates.

“If you work at one of these institutions or for a private collection and have concerns that certain pieces may be tied to illicit trafficking, do the right thing: come forward and work with us on a voluntary basis to facilitate the return to the rightful owners,” Williams said. “That is a far better outcome for you and your institution than if our investigation leads to a knock on your door. In other words, come see us before we come see you.”

Spencer Woodman of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists contributed to this report.

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1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/12/15/relics-cambodia-met-latchford/

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