Cambodia is turning the tide on looted statues, but some things cannot be returned

While we celebrate the repatriation of $50m of ancient Khmer objects, the damage to Cambodian society is permanent.

At the end of January, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced the most significant return ever of stolen antiquities to south-east Asia: more than 100 ancient Khmer objects with an estimated value of $50m assembled over the course of six decades by Douglas Latchford.

At his death in August 2020, Latchford was facing federal charges in the US for the alleged key role he played since the 1960s in the looting and trafficking of Khmer antiquities from Cambodia and Thailand. The investigations had begun to lay bare the direct links between the building of south-east Asian art collections in the west – including at some of America’s most revered cultural institutions – and the brutal destruction of the Khmer cultural heritage on the ground. His daughter inherited the collection and consented to their spectacular return. Latchford, a British citizen by birth, operated out of Bangkok and London. Though the full extent of the Latchford family Khmer antiquities holdings is still unclear, it is understood that it was split between these two locations.

The return has been framed by some as a “gift” to Cambodians. But rather than celebrating a daughter extricating herself from her judicial dragnets, we should be commending those who have worked tirelessly to uncover and prevent the egregious looting of antiquities and the trafficking networks involved: Cambodian authorities, US authorities, academics and NGOs, including Chasing Aphrodite, Trafficking Culture and Heritage Watch.

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