The Met’s Cambodia Problem

The museum’s prized collection of Khmer artifacts may have dubious origins.

In 1992, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City purchased a rare Cambodian sculpture from an art dealer in Bangkok. “The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease” is a masterpiece of metal sculpting from the Angkorian period. But the 10th-century artifact was recently embroiled in a very 21st-century kerfuffle. Cambodia claims the artifact and eight other objects in Gallery 249 at the Met were pillaged from ancient sites. The case is part of a decade-long investigation into one of the most audacious international art capers.

Museums like the Met have rigorous systems to safeguard the institution from art fraud. But were the acquisitions of Cambodian artifacts tainted by competing interests?

One of the museum’s primary suppliers of Southeast Asian art was the Bangkok-based dealer Douglas Latchford. He was also a prolific art smuggler, but his public persona as a scholar camouflaged his illicit activities. A leading authority on Khmer art, Latchford showcased rarely-seen masterpieces in three widely-referenced books filled with glossy photographs. The books burnished his reputation as an expert while also whitewashing the artifact’s origins before they were placed on the international market. Latchford was indicted for antiquities trafficking shortly before his death in 2019.

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