The family of Douglas Latchford – the controversial art dealer famous for collecting and preserving Cambodian artefacts who passed away in August last year – has decided to return over 100 Khmer cultural objects in stone, bronze and other mediums to Cambodia after three years of negotiations, according to a press release dated January 29 from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
The decision to hand over the artefacts culminated in the signing of an agreement by the negotiators and Latchford’s family on September 18, 2020, less than a month after Latchford’s death at his home in Bangkok, Thailand, which was itself heavily decorated with Khmer artefacts.
According to the culture ministry, these master works date from as far back as the sixth century CE all the way up to the post-Angkor period and include Khmer treasures from the former royal cities of Koh Ker and the Angkor area.
Upon arrival in Cambodia, these artefacts will be catalogued and then exhibited in Phnom Penh at the National Museum.
The return of these artefacts will take place gradually. The first phase will see five items delivered, including a stone sculpture of Shiva and Skanda from Koh Ker and a bronze ship’s figurehead.
Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, stated in a press release that this complex task could not be accomplished without the highest guidance and full support from Prime Minister Hun Sen as well as coordination with the relevant ministries, assistance from private institutions and the efforts of certain key individuals, including Bradley James Gordon, Steven Andrew and Charles Webb.
“The return to Cambodia of these pieces underlines Cambodia’s commitment to the repatriation of its lost cultural properties. Their return is an incredible victory for the Cambodian people and the world,” she stated.
She also stated that the ministry would continue to work to restore and preserve Cambodian cultural heritage and she looks forward to further collaboration with the Latchford family and any other collectors across the globe who may wish to follow their fine example and similarly elect to return any of Cambodia’s cultural heritage artefacts they may have in their possession.
She gave special thanks to Nawapan Kriangsak, daughter of the late Douglas Latchford, for her initiative and generosity of spirit in making this amazing contribution towards the full restoration of Cambodia’s rich cultural history.
The minister also thanked the people who participated with the ministry in negotiating for the return of these priceless pieces of Khmer heritage.
She also gave thanks for the work done in this area by the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, US Homeland Security Investigations and the US embassy in Phnom Penh.
She said the joint efforts with the US to find and repatriate Cambodia’s lost cultural artefacts symbolise the friendship between Cambodia and the US and fittingly mark the 70th anniversary of relations between the two countries.
In an email to The Post on January 31, Sackona said: “Our message to private collectors, museums and all other nations is that our goal is to be able to tell the story of Cambodia.
“They can take part in the history of Khmer culture by helping us to regain our lost artefacts.
“With the artefacts returned, we can write a new chapter together in Cambodian history in which they will be heroes to Cambodia and a positive part of its history through the generous return of statues and other Khmer cultural items.”
Bradley Gordon, a key figure who assisted in bringing about the return of these artefacts to Cambodia, said the three years of negotiations with Kriangsak were prolonged due to Latchford becoming seriously ill.
“Today we welcome this extraordinary collection home. Nawapan’s decision is monumental for Cambodia and sets a fantastic example for the world. We encourage collectors and museums from all over the world to contact us to discuss Khmer cultural properties, share information and ultimately make a similar decision,” Bradley Gordon said.
Sok Puthyvuth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications who was involved in the negotiations, said that as the discussions advanced the more he began to realise how extraordinary the Latchford collection was in its immeasurable value.
He believes they should build a new larger national museum space for the returned artefacts.
“This is not a question of the monetary value of our Khmer culture and artefacts, because to us they are priceless. The value is immeasurable because this does so much to advance our goal to protect and rediscover our history for future generations,” he said.
He added that now the working group was bringing archaeologists and other experts to the temples looted during recent Cambodian history.
He also noted that there were many good people both locally and internationally who were willing to act as guardians of Khmer heritage by helping to restore the temples and working to return cultural artefacts to their rightful place here.
Latchford had already sent some artefacts back to Cambodia before he was charged by the Southern District of New York with several counts of smuggling looted Cambodian artefacts in 2019. He died in Bangkok in August 2020 before the case could be resolved in court.
According to the New York Times, Latchford had a collection of 125 ancient Cambodian artefacts – the largest known private collection of them in the world. To date, 25 of them have been shipped from Bangkok to Cambodia.
Kriangsak’s lawyer estimated the collection could be worth more than $50 million.