A bronze standing Shiva statue is unpacked at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh after being returned to the kingdom in March 2023.

Looted relics returned to Cambodia receive monks’ blessings

Cambodian artifacts were often looted out of the country beginning in the 1970s, under control of the Khmer Rouge. At least 13 antiquities have been returned this month amid a push in the art world from artists and scholars to return looted works to their countries of origin. 

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The faded stamps and ripped shipping labels on a 7-foot plywood crate trace the journey of a 4-ton, 10th-century statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. 

The large crate was unloaded earlier this month at Phnom Penh International Airport, in Cambodia, along with several other smaller crates containing other relics, including a rare 7th- or 8th-century sandstone statue of the Hindu sun god Surya, and a bronze bell from the 1st century BC. 

Artifacts like these were looted in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, and continued into the 2000s. Some are now being returned amid a push in the art world, as well as from the US government, to return looted works to their countries of origin. 

The name "Latchford" was hard to miss stenciled onto the crate containing a 4-ton statue, looted from a Cambodian temple years ago. Attorney Brad Gordon and Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts Official Hab Touch couldn’t help take a photo of the notorious a

The name "Latchford" was hard to miss stenciled onto the crate containing a 4-ton statue, looted from a Cambodian temple years ago. Attorney Brad Gordon and Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts Official Hab Touch couldn’t help take a photo of the notorious art dealer’s name in celebration of the statue’s return.

Credit:

Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

Almost all 13 of the Cambodian antiquities returned in this month’s shipment were linked to art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted for trafficking looted artifacts in 2019, and died the following year. 

In the 1970s and 80s, as Cambodia's ancient relics were spirited out of the country, museums rarely asked questions about their provenance. The international market for Cambodian antiquities expanded in the wake of war and genocide into the early 2000s. 

Sok Soda, deputy director of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, unpacks a bronze standing Buddha statue.

Sok Soda, deputy director of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, unpacks a bronze standing Buddha statue after its return to the kingdom from the US, on March 11, 2023. 

Credit:

Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

A reckoning in the art world

Cambodia has sought the return of the relics for decades. But museums and private collectors are now facing pressure from the US federal government to give up these looted artifacts. 

The Department of Justice sought the forfeiture of pieces from private collectors and the Denver Art Museum. Homeland Security has been investigating these particular looted objects for over five years. 

The Ganesha statue was looted around 2003, from the Bak Temple at Koh Ker in northern Cambodia. It is likely that the piece has been in this box for almost 20 years. Latchford had lent the Ganesha statue to Berlin's Museum of Indian Art before he sold it to American billionaire and Netscape founder James Clark.

“[Latchford] wasn’t clever enough, it came back in the end,” said Bradley J. Gordon, a US attorney representing Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. 

“The Ganesha is more powerful than Latchford’s cleverness.” 

Ros Sarou, an official with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, whispers a prayer after giving an offering to a recently returned, nearly 4-ton statue of Ganesh that was opened for the first time in 20 years on March 11, 2023.

Ros Sarou, an official with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, whispers a prayer after giving an offering to a recently returned, nearly 4-ton statue of Ganesh that was opened for the first time in 20 years on March 11, 2023.

Credit:

Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

Part of Latchford’s cleverness, as Gordon called it, was using the art world as a cover for his looting. By lending pieces to prestigious museums that didn’t ask too many questions about their origins, the pieces had an air of legitimacy, which then made them easier to sell to wealthy people like Clark. 

“It's not that the art world was corrupted by Douglas Latchford or art historians were corrupted or the Met was corrupted, this is the art world,” said Ashley Thompson, professor at SOAS University of London specializing in Cambodian art history. 

“There is this line of colonialism up until capitalism, it’s not that the art market went wrong in this instance.” 

'Our ancestors, our spirit'

The day after the artifacts arrived at the airport, a team pried open the boxes at the National Museum of Cambodia while Buddhist monks in orange robes threw lotus flowers. 

The biggest reveal of the day was the Ganesha statue.

“This is our ancestors, our spirit,” said a nearly breathless Hab Touch, secretary of state of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, as he viewed the massive stone statue. 

“Normally we consider all sculptures not only sculpture, not only stone, not only bronze, but our gods, our ancestors.”

Buddhist monks throw lotus flowers at a sandstone statue.

Buddhist monks throw lotus flowers at a sandstone statue of Skanda, the Hindu god of war, on a peacock as part of a blessing ceremony for more than a dozen ancient artifacts being returned to Cambodia’s national museum in Phnom Penh.

Credit:

Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

Ros Sarou, who also works with the ministry, prayed to the statue and offered the deity water, saying that Ganesha is probably thirsty after all those years in the box. 

“We never think that we can collect all these back. Now it’s true, we can see, we can receive and be very happy that he can return back to the country,” she said. 

“We hope that some of the statues will continue coming back to the country.”

A nearly 4-ton sandstone statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, is unboxed for the first time in two decades at the National Museum of Cambodia on March 11, 2023.

A nearly 4-ton sandstone statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, is unboxed for the first time in two decades at the National Museum of Cambodia on March 11, 2023.

Credit:

Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

Sarou is proud of this moment, and hopes publicity of these returned statues will make collectors from around the world think about the pieces sitting in their own collections.

“Now we have peace in the country and that’s why we can collect all these back. It’s time for them to return home,” she said.

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