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Metropolitan Museum in New York to Return Stolen Buddhist Artifacts to Cambodia and Thailand


The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is working to return 14 sculptures and other artifacts that were stolen by smugglers from Cambodia while it was suffering through decades of civil war and other internal struggles, as well as two artifacts to Thailand.

The illegal nature of the artifacts’ provenance was discovered during an investigation by the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York and the New York office of Homeland Security Investigations. Museum staff also carried out their own investigation, which confirmed the US Attorney General’s suspicions.

Homeland Security special agent Erin Keegan said in a statement that the investigation had revealed that the works had been “shamelessly stolen” by the art dealer, collector, and scholar Douglas A. J. Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for “running a vast antiquities-trafficking network out of Southeast Asia,” according to US Attorney Damien Williams. Latchford died the following year, but had denied any involvement in smuggling. (Associated Press)

While he was alive, Latchford gave the impression that he was a scholar devoted to protecting the art and culture of Cambodia. He built a reputation by donating pieces of Cambodian art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other famous organizations. Latchford also authored three books that were filled with pictures of Cambodian statues. It was later discovered that many of the antiquities featured in his books were stolen.

American lawyer Brad Gordon, who has worked with the Cambodian government for more than 10 years to recover lost antiquities, had this to say about Latchford’s books: “He was using the books as sales catalogs. You know, he was handing them out. He was using them to sell pieces. And he understood a certain psychology of collectors out there that if they see something in a beautiful book, they think it’s legitimate.” (MSN)

Earlier this year, a number of works of art, including 77 pieces of jewelry made from a variety of precious metals, were returned to Cambodia. The items included necklaces, earrings, and crowns. Additionally, several bronze and stone artifacts were repatriated to Cambodia in September 2021.


The artifacts being returned were created during Cambodia’s Angkorian period, which lasted from the 9th–14th centuries, and are prominent symbols of both Buddhist and Hindu religious ideals.  Many artifacts from the Angkorian period can be found at Angkor Wat in northwestern Cambodia.

The head of a Buddha statue is among the stolen artifacts, along with a goddess statue from Koh Ker in northern Cambodia. The Buddha head is made of stone and has been dated to the seventh century, while the goddess statue is made of sandstone and has been dated to the 10th century.

As a result of the US Attorney General’s investigation, the museum is hiring more staff to research the provenance of artifacts it holds, and is reviewing practices for managing its collections.

Metropolitan Museum chief executive officer Max Hollein had this to say about how the museum hoped to move forward: “[We are] committed to pursuing partnerships and collaborations with Cambodia and Thailand that will advance the world’s understanding and appreciation of Khmer art, and we look forward to embarking on this new chapter together.” (Reuters)

Returning the artifacts returned to Cambodia and Thailand will take time, and an exact date has yet to be set for their return. However, while the process is underway, 10 of the works of art will remain on display at the Metropolitan Museum, alongside signs explaining circumstances of their repatriation.

See more

How stolen Cambodian artifacts ended up in American museums (MSN)
New York’s Metropolitan Museum will return stolen ancient sculptures to Cambodia and Thailand (Associated Press)
New York’s Met museum returns Southeast Asian artifacts tied to looting (Reuters)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art to Return 14 Looted Antiquities to Cambodia (Observer)

Related features from BDG

Court Orders Stolen Buddhist Statue in South Korea to be Returned to Japan
UPDATE: Bronze Buddha Stolen from LA Gallery Recovered
30 Stolen Antiquities Repatriated to Cambodia from US
Stolen 12th Century Bronze Buddha Statue Returned to India
“Tree and Serpent” Exhibition Brings Buddhist Art to the Met in New York

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John H Negru
6 months ago

Hard to imagine that the recipients would consider the artifacts as having fallen from the sky or purchased legitimately. Greed made everyone willing to turn a blind eye. Now they can just make 3D printed replicas for the museum and send the originals home.