US returns looted ancient treasures to Cambodia

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US returns looted ancient treasures to Cambodia

New York officials have returned 30 cultural artifacts to Cambodia, including a 10th-century Khmer sculptural masterpiece, after the items were illegally sold to private collectors and a US museum.

On Monday, the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York hosted a repatriation ceremony for the works, with Cambodia's ambassador to the US, Keo Chhea, in attendance.

The statues and artifacts range in age from the bronze age to the 12th century and are of extraordinary cultural value to the Cambodian people and we are delighted to be sending them home today, said prosecutor Damian Williams at a press conference.

The artifacts include a Skanda on a Peacock, a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of the Hindu war goddess Skanda, stolen from the Prasat Krachap temple in Koh Ker, an archeological site in the 1990s.

The retrieval of these items, most of which were voluntarily returned by a private collector, is part of an ongoing investigation into Southeast Asian artifacts bought and sold by the late antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford. Once considered a leading scholar of Khmer art, Latchford was accused of trafficking artifacts and deceiving clients, from private collectors to major institutions.

In 2014 a 10th century statue linked to Latchford was withdrawn from an auction and returned to Cambodia after investigators concluded it had been illegally removed from a temple during the country's civil war. US prosecutors charged Latchford with wire fraud and smuggling five years later, but he died in Thailand in 2020 before he could answer the charges.

He said to reporters at the press conference that we need to commit and continue our fight to protect our soul of cultural heritage and to prevent the priceless antiquities from being stolen and spirited away from the country. Chhea said that this problem goes much deeper than the activity of one man. It is a global problem that involves wealthy collectors, private dealers, gallery owners and even some of the world's most prestigious places.