On Friday, December 15th, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced its decision to return thirteen stolen Khmer artworks to Cambodia. This significant move comes after federal prosecutors identified the artworks as being tied directly to illicit trafficking by the late British collector and dealer Douglas Latchford.
Latchford, who was charged in 2019 for running a vast antiquities trafficking network out of Southeast Asia, passed away in 2020. Following his death, his daughter donated all the Khmer artworks she inherited from him to the Cambodian government. The Met’s decision aligns with ongoing efforts to rectify historical wrongs in the art world, particularly concerning looted artifacts.
The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, highlighted the importance of this repatriation, noting that all artworks being returned were directly linked to illicit trafficking. The Met, in addition to the 13 artworks announced by Williams, also plans to return an additional sculpture to Cambodia and two to Thailand, totaling 16 artworks.
Some of the Hindu and Buddhist religious sculptures in question will remain on view at the Met temporarily until their repatriation. These artworks, made between the ninth and 14th centuries, hold significant cultural and historical value for Cambodia.
The Met has been proactively working with law enforcement and the Cambodian government to resolve questions regarding the various artworks. New information that arose from this process made it clear that the return of this group of sculptures was necessary, as stated by Max Hollein, the museum’s director and CEO.
This decision comes amid intensifying criticism and scrutiny over potentially looted artworks in major cultural institutions. The Met has enhanced its provenance research efforts in the past year, but some experts argue that the museum has been slow in identifying and returning looted artworks.
The return of these artifacts and artworks is a crucial step in addressing the looting of Cambodian sculptures from ancient sites, which has been described as an “open secret” for years. The repatriation of these artifacts is not just a legal obligation but also a moral one, reflecting the museum’s commitment to ethical stewardship of cultural heritage.
U.S. Attorney Williams warned cultural institutions and those in the art world to be vigilant about potentially plundered artworks and to proactively facilitate the return of such items to their rightful owners.