New York Metropolitan Museum: Stolen Thai ancient artifacts to be returned

Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

The prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York has yielded to pressure, agreeing to return 16 Khmer-era ancient artifacts to Cambodia and Thailand.

Unraveling a tale of illicit trafficking, these masterpieces were linked to the late Douglas Latchford, a notorious dealer accused of dealing in ancient artifacts.

The Met, under scrutiny for years, succumbed to the Cambodian government’s demands, acknowledging that some of its prized possessions were allegedly taken illicitly during Cambodia’s tumultuous civil war. Among the 16 artworks being returned, 14 will find their way back to Cambodia, and two to Thailand, marking a historic moment in the museum’s history.

Some of these artworks, described by the museum as the finest surviving examples from the Angkor period, are still on display at the Met. However, they will eventually be repatriated to their countries of origin, reshaping the museum’s collections.

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In a surprising move, the museum announced a comprehensive review of all its collections and policies, pledging to return objects with problematic histories. The museum’s director, Max Hollein gave a statement on the issue.

“The Met has been diligently working with Cambodia, and new information has made it clear that we should initiate the return of this group of sculptures.”

This revelation follows the Met’s cooperation in an investigation led by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and Homeland Security Investigations. Both parties, Cambodia and the Met, hint at the possibility of more artworks being returned after further scrutiny.

Letter to Cambodia

In a letter to the Cambodian government, Hollein expressed the Met’s commitment to reviewing its collection of Khmer artwork further and welcomed Cambodian experts to examine acquisition records. This marks a significant step towards resolving questions surrounding the contested artworks.

Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, highlighted that the returns are part of an ongoing effort to track looted antiquities. The Met’s expansion of its South and Southeast Asian galleries, beginning in the 1970s, involved close collaboration with Douglas Latchford, a key figure in acquiring Khmer antiquities, reported Bangkok Post.

Latchford, indicted in 2019 for trafficking in looted Cambodian relics, passed away in 2020 at the age of 88. The Cambodian government, adamant about reclaiming its lost cultural heritage, has based its claims on the accounts of a reformed looter, Toek Tik.

Among the 14 works being returned to Cambodia, a 10th-century bronze Head of Avalokiteshvara and a bronze figure with silver inlay, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease, stand out as key pieces. Toek Tik’s revelations, backed by photographs obtained from Latchford’s computer, have added a layer of complexity to the Met’s acquisitions.

Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona remarked that the act of return is an act of healing for the nation.

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Puntid Tantivangphaisal

Originally from Hong Kong, Puntid moved to Bangkok in 2020 to pursue further studies in translation. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong. Puntid spent 8 years living in Manchester, UK. Before joining The Thaiger, Puntid has been a freelance translator for 2 years. In her free time, she enjoys swimming and listening to music, as well as writing short fiction and poetry.

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