Cambodia Says It’s Found Its Lost Artifacts: in Gallery 249 at the Met

In the 1970s, long after its encyclopedic collection had been acknowledged as among the world’s finest, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recognized it had slender holdings in South or Southeast Asian art. One in-house estimate suggested that no more than 60 objects were worth exhibiting.

But over the next two decades it built a world-class collection, acquiring hundreds of artifacts for new galleries that now occupy the equivalent of more than a city block. The massive undertaking brought the glories of ancient Cambodia and India, Thailand and Vietnam to New York, where they took pride of place alongside the Western masterpieces that had long defined the museum.

Significant to this effort was Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British-Thai businessman who had become a leading collector, scholar and dealer in Khmer art — and would later be indicted as an illegal trafficker of Cambodian artifacts.

Starting in 1983, Latchford gave or sold the museum 13 artifacts, a modest amount but one that included premiere examples of Khmer sculpture. Two gifts were the torsos of massive, twin stone statues, the Kneeling Attendants, that guarded the doorway to Gallery 249, which focused on Khmer art. The wall label noted that they had been given “in honor of Martin Lerner,” the curator of South and Southeast Asian art who directed the Met’s collecting effort.

Cambodian officials now say they believe many of those 13 items were stolen. They suspect dozens of other artifacts in that gallery and others were also looted, often trafficked by Latchford, who died in 2020. They say they believe he often sold stolen items to other donors and dealers before they ended up at the museum.

The Cambodians have enlisted the help of the U.S. Justice Department to press for the return of dozens of artworks, basing their claim in part on the account of a reformed looter. The looter, Toek Tik, identified 33 artifacts in the Met collection as objects he recalled personally plundering and selling to intermediaries who often did business with Latchford.

But the dispute has evolved into something of an odd standoff.

The Met says it has a track record of returning items proven to have been looted, that for years it has been reviewing its Khmer artifacts and that it has updated several provenances as a result and turned that information over to Cambodian officials. But the Met has refused to show Cambodia a set of internal documents that might buttress, or undermine, the museum’s proper title to the objects, whose slim ownership histories are listed on the Met website.

The Cambodian officials, meanwhile, have turned evidence of looting over to the federal authorities but not to the museum itself.

“We have not been provided Toek Tik’s accounts,” the Met said in a statement, “nor do we know the identity of the 33 items. We have repeatedly requested any evidence demonstrating works were stolen from Cambodia.”

Bradley Gordon, a lawyer for Cambodia’s government, responded: “The burden of proof should be on the Met to prove the Met has the right to legally own Cambodia’s national treasures.”

In pursuing a robust set of claims, the Cambodian officials are relying heavily on the recollection of places and events from, in some cases, four decades ago, by Toek Tik, who died last year at age 62. His account was detailed and the Cambodians say much of it has been corroborated by interviews with fellow thieves and by evidence found at the remote jungle temples sites that were plundered or among Latchford’s papers. But sometimes Toek Tik remembered finding several different objects, all of which he thought roughly resembled an item in the Met.

The Cambodian officials say they have also discovered records that raise concerns about how thoroughly Met officials reviewed many of the items before acquiring them. In particular, they cite documents that show that soon after Lerner, the Met curator who led the collecting efforts, stepped down from his post in 2003 to become an art market consultant, his clients included Latchford.

The documents, found on Latchford’s computer after it was turned over to Cambodia by his daughter, show that Lerner used his expertise and reputation as a former Met expert to help Latchford market items for sale. In letters drawn up for Latchford clients, Lerner vouched for the value and significance of artifacts, in one case using language that closely tracked with what Latchford had asked him to write. They also owned at least one artifact together.

“We are eager to learn more about this relationship and how this fits into the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of the Metropolitan’s collection of Cambodian cultural properties,” Gordon said.

Lerner, one of the most respected experts in his field, said in an interview that his business relationship with Latchford did not start until after he had left the Met and that he had not known of any taint to the Latchford items he acquired for the museum or later vouched for as a consultant. But he acknowledged that, like other curators at the time, he did not do a lot to investigate where Latchford was securing his artifacts, a position he now regrets.

“Knowing what I know now, I should probably not have worked so closely with Mr. Latchford,” he said.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

Cambodian officials are pursuing the return of dozens of artifacts at the Met, many of which a reformed looter told them he had a direct hand in stealing. Here’s how he says he excavated and sold one celebrated item that the Met bought 30 years ago from Douglas A.J. Latchford →

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease dates from the 10th or 11th centuries during the Angkor period. The bronze figure with silver inlay is two feet tall and 87 pounds and depicts a highly enlightened Buddhist embodying the spirit of infinite compassion.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

Toek Tik, the reformed looter who said he supplied items to Latchford, an artifact dealer and accused trafficker, through intermediaries, told Cambodian authorities he found the statue around 1990 in a field roughly 200 miles north of Phnom Penh.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

Thomas Cristofoletti

He searched the field because of its proximity to a mountain consecrated as holy during the Khmer Empire (A.D. 802 to A.D. 1431). Using a metal detector, he said he found the buried bronze and put it in a backpack.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

He said he took it south by motor scooter to a city, Siem Reap, where he sold it to a trafficker referred to by the Cambodian authorities as Sleeping Giant, a conduit between Toek Tik and Latchford in Thailand.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

Cambodian officials say Toek Tik’s account has been buttressed by other looters and by photographs obtained from Latchford’s computer that show the statue tarnished and caked with dirt, suggesting it had just been excavated.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

Additional photos show the bronze in various stages of restoration at a private workshop, where Cambodian officials say it was sent before Latchford put it on the market.

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

via Cambodian government

The Met bought the item in 1992 from Latchford (left) using funds provided by the Annenberg Foundation. Martin Lerner (right), curator of Southeast Asian art at the time, called it “one of the finest and most important of the very few surviving major bronze sculptures of the Angkor period.”

A Temple Robber Tracks His Loot to the Met

Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley🖼 Reporting on stolen artifacts

Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The bronze is now on exhibit in Gallery 249. The provenance lists only Latchford’s ownership. Cambodia has asked for the museum’s documentation on what kind of review was done before accepting it. The Met said Cambodia has yet to provide it with Toek Tik’s testimony or other evidence.

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