The Met Will Repatriate 16 Artifacts to Cambodia and Thailand

The looted objects are tied to the notorious art dealer Douglas Latchford

Head of Buddha
This seventh-century Buddha sculpture was among the artifacts. U.S. Department of Justice

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will return 16 artifacts to Cambodia and Thailand, the museum announced in a statement on Friday. The sculptures are tied to the notorious art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for trafficking looted antiquities.

Latchford denied any wrongdoing until his death the following year. In the wake of his indictment, however, the Met began working with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and Cambodian officials to scrutinize its Khmer collection.

“The Met has been diligently working with Cambodia and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for years to resolve questions regarding these works of art, and new information that arose from this process made it clear that we should initiate the return of this group of sculptures,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director and chief executive officer, says in the statement.

Still, critics argue that the museum has been moving too slowly through the repatriation process.

“The Met should have made this decision much earlier,” Bradley Gordon, a lawyer for Cambodia’s government, tells the Observer’s Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly. “We believe the U.S. government’s leadership, negotiations and investigations along with our own direct negotiations and media scrutiny have made a difference.”

The 16 antiquities are Hindu and Buddhist works of art made during the Angkorian period, between the 9th and 14th centuries. Fourteen will be returned to Cambodia and two will travel to Thailand, though the Met has yet to announce a timeline.

In the meantime, ten of the sculptures will remain on display—including The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease and a Head of Buddha—along with wall text that explains the museum’s repatriation plans.

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

Beginning in the ’70s, Cambodia endured a period of war and suffered under the cruel Khmer Rouge regime, which rendered the region vulnerable to archaeological looting. The Met also expanded its South and Southeast Asian collections around the same time—with Latchford’s help.

“He was, in many ways, the mastermind behind the greatest art heist in history,” Gordon tells CBS News’ Anderson Cooper.

Last week’s announcement wasn’t the Met’s first Latchford-related repatriation. In 2013, the museum returned two statues known as the “Kneeling Attendants” to Cambodia, which had been donated to the institution in the late 1980s and ’90s.

Beyond the Met, others have taken similar steps to return artifacts tied to Latchford. Last winter, Cambodian officials announced that Latchford’s family would return a trove of gold jewelry. Over the summer, the National Gallery of Australia agreed to repatriate three looted statues purchased from the art dealer.

“As demonstrated with today’s announcement, pieces linked to the investigation of Douglas Latchford continue to reveal themselves,” Erin Keegan, a special agent with Homeland Security, said in a statement on Friday.

Though Cambodia welcomed the return of its 14 artifacts, Phoeurng Sackona, the country’s minister of culture and fine arts, insists the museum has more looted antiquities that should also be repatriated.

“The act of return is an act of healing for our nation,” she says in a statement, per the Khmer Times’ Tith Kongnov. “We have many more treasures at the Met whose return we eagerly await.”

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