A stunning trove of never-before-seen gold jewelry has been returned to Cambodia, the country’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced in a statement this week.
Experts think the items were worn by Angkorian royals. The collection includes more than 70 artifacts—crowns, necklaces, woven gold belts and intricate body ornaments—from the Khmer Empire, a far-reaching state in Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th century.
Cambodian authorities say that tomb raiders likely looted the items from ancient temples and burial grounds between the 1970s and the 2000s, as the country was ravaged by war, genocide and political upheaval, according to the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg.
On Monday, officials celebrated the return in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The country is essentially “getting back the crown jewels of the Angkor Empire,” says Hab Touch, secretary of state with Cambodia’s culture ministry, to the Times.
The artifacts come from the collection of the late Douglas Latchford, an art dealer and scholar of ancient Cambodia. The year before his death in 2020, Latchford was indicted in the United States and accused of being an “antiquities trafficking kingpin,” as the Times puts it; Cambodian officials say he’d been attempting to sell some of the gold items in London shortly before the indictment.
As part of a 2020 agreement, Latchford’s family has promised to return all Cambodian artifacts—including the gold jewelry, reports Sopheng Cheang of the Associated Press. The family returned other stone and bronze artifacts in late 2021.
Brad Gordon, the head of Cambodia’s investigative team, was the first Cambodian official to see the jewelry. Last summer, during a trip to London, “I was driven by a representative of the Latchford family to an undisclosed location. In the parking lot was a vehicle with four boxes inside,” he recalls to BBC News’ Celia Hatton. “I felt like crying. I just thought—wow—the crown jewels of ancient Cambodian civilization packed into four boxes in the back of a car."
Cambodian gold is quite rare—so rare that estimating its value is difficult, as few comparisons exist, experts tell the Times.
It’s so rare, in fact, that archaeologist Sonetra Seng, who researches Angkorian jewelry, had been studying temple carvings to see what the finery would have looked like.
“The jewelry proves what was on the carvings and what was rumored is really true. Cambodia was really, really rich in the past,” she tells BBC News. “Still, I can’t believe it.”
Finally back in Cambodia, the gold artifacts will soon go on display in Phnom Penh.