Cambodian artworks looted during the Khmer Rouge era returned by US authorities
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Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States said Monday that the transfer of 30 antiquities by US law enforcement authorities to his country was a return of “the souls of our culture.”
Ambassador Keo Chhea spoke at a ceremony in which a 10th-century sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” was among several artworks on display as U.S. and Cambodian officials described the impact the return would have of 30 antiquities in the Southeast Asian nation.
“It’s like a return of the souls of our culture to our people,” Chhea said. “We are very grateful.”
Chhea praised the cooperation between the US and Cambodia in enabling the return of the antiquities, but also said they are fighting a “global problem” that continues.
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He added that “we must engage and continue our struggle” to prevent further looting and stop the looting of precious works of art by the tools used by looters, which sometimes results in pieces of sculptures being cut off.
Some sculptures, including one from the 10th century depicting the Hindu elephant god Ganesha weighing more than 3 tons, were too heavy to be brought into the ceremony, according to US Attorney Damian Williams.
The sculptures were looted during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia, which was ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
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Organized looting networks, including looters affiliated with the Khmer Rouge, sent the statues to Douglas Latchford, a well-known antiquities dealer, who then sold them to Western dealers, collectors and institutions, Williams said.
Latchford died before he could be extradited to the United States to face wire fraud conspiracy charges and other crimes in federal court in Manhattan, the prosecutor said. Finally, the charge was dismissed due to his death.
Williams said some of the sandstone and bronze sculptures and artifacts were abandoned by their owners when U.S. authorities told them they had been stolen. Others were claimed through court actions. They range from the Bronze Age to the 12th century.
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“We commend the individuals and institutions who decided to do the right thing and, after learning the origin of the antiquities in their possession, decided to voluntarily return these pieces to their homeland,” Williams said. “We would like to encourage anyone who believes they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities in their possession to come forward.”