For decades, Cambodians lived under the iron fist of the Khmer Rouge—a radical communist regime that decimated the country’s professional and technical classes and killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians during its official rule from 1975 to 1979. Through the 1990s, a ring of the movement’s leaders mercilessly looted cultural treasures, and hundreds of priceless statues and temple items were sold off and removed from the country.
Now, the Cambodian government says many of those artifacts are currently in possession of the United Kingdom—and they want their artwork back.
BBC News’ Celia Hatton reports that Cambodian culture minister Phoeurng Sackona recently asked Britain to investigate the provenance of Cambodian artifacts in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London.
There are over 100 Cambodian cultural properties in the British Museum, and over 50 in the V&A, the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris writes.
In a statement to the Art Newspaper, museum officials said that determining provenance has been “an integral part of the museum’s acquisition process for decades” and that it will “carefully and respectfully” consider any requests from the Cambodian government. The V&A told the Art Newspaper that provenance information about objects of Cambodian origin has been online for years.
Brad Gordon, an attorney who heads the Cambodian Ministry of Culture’s investigations team, tells BBC News that the pieces were exported without permission or proper documentation, adding that the museums “are in receipt of stolen property and the stolen property needs to come back.” The museums “shouldn’t have accepted these pieces,” Gordon says.
Though there aren’t any current plans to litigate, the attorney says the removal of these statues from Cambodia could be considered a war crime under the Hague Convention. After the horrors of World War II, widespread looting among them, over 100 countries convened at the Hague in the Netherlands in 1954 to discuss how to protect cultural property during future wars. In Article 4 of the treaty that emerged from the convention, its signatories pledged to prevent the theft or pillaging of cultural items during armed conflicts. Both the United Kingdom and Cambodia signed on to the agreement.
Many Cambodian looters removed and sold cultural items out of duress. Last year, the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg spoke with a former smuggler named Toek Tik who described how, as a teenager forced to murder civilians under Khmer Rouge orders, he bartered items from an ancient temple in exchange for clothing. He went on to helm a smuggling ring devoted to temple looting. The BBC also spoke with former smugglers who were able to pick out the exact items they looted in the British Museum and V&A catalogues.
A number of these smugglers allegedly worked with Douglas Latchford. Though the British art dealer denied any wrongdoing, he was indicted in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Justice for trafficking Cambodian antiquities.
Latchford was never brought to justice, and died in Bangkok in 2020 just months after he was indicted. His daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, returned her father’s collection of Cambodian art, worth $50 million, to Cambodia in February 2021.
More evidence came to light when the Pandora Papers—a cache of 11.9 million documents detailing the dubious business practices of the world’s wealthiest—were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists after a leak by an undisclosed individual. The papers appear to show that Latchford concealed his questionable dealings through offshore trusts in tax havens.
Other museums have also started to reassess their Latchford-acquired holdings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of art among them, per ARTnews’ Alex Greenberger. In November, the Denver Art Museum deaccessionedfour artifacts connected to the dealer.
For Cambodians, this repatriation effort is about more than giving art back to its rightful owner. Sopheap Meas, an archaeologist on the Cambodian Ministry of Culture’s investigative team, tells the BBC that Cambodians believe temple statues can contain the souls of gods and kings, and that seeing the statues broken up makes her “nauseous.”
“…when the head was cut and the foot, the leg was destroyed, it’s just like people and somebody cut off their heads,” she says.
Former looters feel similar anguish. Toek Tik tells the New York Times “I regret what I did. I want the gods to come home.”