Cambodia has expressed its support for a US court after it charged Douglas Latchford, a leading expert on Khmer antiquities, with smuggling looted Cambodian relics and helping to sell them on the international art market by concealing their tainted histories with falsified documentation.
The New York Times reported last week that prosecutors alleged Latchford, 88, a dealer in and collector of Southeast Asian antiquities, falsified documents to make looted treasures easier to sell on the art market.
It said that in a federal indictment unsealed on Wednesday, Latchford was accused of having served for decades as a “conduit” for Cambodian antiquities that had been excavated illegally from ancient jungle temples during unrest in the country starting in the mid-1960s, with the beginnings of the Cambodian civil war.
According to a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Latchford, a dual citizen of Thailand and the United Kingdom, falsified invoices and shipping documents to make it easier to sell those looted artefacts to major auction houses, dealers and museums, it said.
It said that the prosecutors presented in court papers a sordid and alternative perspective on Latchford, who had been hailed in Cambodia as a protector of the country’s relics, having donated rare artefacts and money to the national museum in Phnom Penh.
In 2008, he was honoured with the country’s equivalent of a knighthood. He is also the co-author of three books — “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes” — that are foundational reference works for experts, it said.
Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona yesterday said that she has yet to receive any information from the US State Department.
“The government’s stance is that we support all measures so that artefacts can be returned to Cambodia,” she said.
“We have not yet received any information from the US Department of State. We are looking forward to receiving information from the United States first and then we will work together,” Ms Sackona said.
In November last year, two agreements on cultural cooperation in Cambodia were signed between the United States embassy and the Culture and Fine Arts Ministry.
Kong Virak, National Museum director, yesterday hailed the US court’s move.
“Regarding this case, it is under [US] jurisdiction and for me, I think it is good thing and I support the court working on the case,” Mr Virak said. “For me, I don’t know what to do with the case. But I know that the US court has worked on that case for a long time,” he said.
Mr Virak said that Latchford helped fund electrical installation at the National Museum and returned Cambodian artefacts to the Kingdom.
“We have to support the US court because we have signed agreements with the US to prevent looted artefacts,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment, while US embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg did not respond to an email for comment.