Antique Cambodian Artwork Returned by US Authorities

Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States said Monday that the transfer of 30 antiquities by US law enforcement agencies to his country was a return of the “souls of our culture.”

Ambassador Keo Chhea spoke at a ceremony where a 10th-century sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” was among the works of art on display, as US and Cambodian officials described the impact the return of 30 antiquities would have on the Southeast. Asian nation.

“It’s like returning the souls of our culture back to our people,” Chhea said. “We are very grateful.”

Chhea praised the collaboration between the US and Cambodia to enable the return of the antiquities, but he also said they were grappling with a “global problem” that persists.

He added that “we must engage and continue our struggle” to prevent further looting and to stop the looting of precious works of art by tools used by looters, sometimes leading to sculptures being chopped off.

Some sculptures, including one from the 10th century depicting the Hindu elephant god Ganesha weighing more than 3 tons, were too heavy to be brought to the ceremony, according to U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.

Surrounded by Cambodian antiquities, Cambodian Ambassador to the United States Keo Chhea speaks at a press conference in New York.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The sculptures were looted during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia, which was ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Williams said organized looting networks — including looters affiliated with the Khmer Rouge — sent the statues to Douglas Latchford, a well-known antiquities dealer, who then sold them to Western dealers, collectors and institutions.

Ambassador Keo Chhea spoke at a ceremony that featured a 10th-century sculpture,
Ambassador Keo Chhea spoke at a ceremony that featured a 10th-century sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” among several works of art.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
The art was created during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia.
The art was created during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Latchford died before he could be extradited to the United States to face charges of conspiracy with telefraud and other crimes in Manhattan federal court, the district attorney noted. The charges were ultimately dismissed due to his death.

Williams said some of the sandstone and bronze sculptures and artifacts were abandoned by their owners when U.S. authorities told them they had been stolen. Others were claimed through legal proceedings. They ranged from the Bronze Age to the 12th century.

“We commend individuals and institutions who decided to do the right thing, and after learning about the origins of the antiquities in their possession, decided to voluntarily return those pieces to their homeland,” Williams said. “We want to encourage anyone who believes they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities into their possession to come forward.”

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