Repatriation of Cambodian Art Sheds Light on Antiquities Trade
December 5, 2019
An ongoing series of actions by the Cambodian government illuminates the shadowy web of the international antiquities trade. (Federal Prosecutors File Court Papers…) In March, 2011, a thousand-year-old, five-hundred-pound sculpture of a warrior called Duryodhanna, estimated at $2 to $3 million, was pulled from auction at Sotheby’s in response to a complaint from the Cambodian government. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch, working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, launched an investigation which led to a lawsuit demanding repatriation. In June, 2012, the Cambodian government demanded the return of two life-size sandstone sculptures, known as the Kneeling Attendants, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have been at the Met since 1992. During the course of a hearing in the Sotheby’s case in September, 2012, prosecutors revealed that the Cambodian government had also requested that the Norton Simon Museum return a companion sculpture to Duryodhanna, called Bhima, which has been on display since 1980.
In November, prosecutors filed an amended complaint alleging that Sotheby’s had colluded with the statue’s owner in hiding information that the statue had been stolen, and that they could prove that the statue came from a Khmer Dynasty temple called Prasat Chen. The prosecution asserts that looters stole the statue in 1972 and handed it off to a Thai middleman. It wound up in the hands of an unnamed “Collector” who allegedly sold it to Spink & Son (now Spink), a major London dealer in Asian art. In 1975, the statue was bought from Spink by the husband, now dead, of a Belgian woman who consigned it to Sotheby’s. The prosecution contends that Sotheby’s omitted the name of the Collector who sold the statue to Spink along with other details to obscure the statue’s provenance. Sotheby’s says it omitted the name of the Collector because he had no role in the transaction.
Douglas A. J. Latchford, a pre-eminent expert in Khmer antiquities, freely admits he is the Collector. He owns one of the greatest collections of Cambodian art in the world. He has donated art to many institutions, including Cambodian Museums, and he helped raise funds for improvements to Cambodia’s National Museum, earning him a Cambodian knighthood in 2008. He also happens to be the person who donated the Kneeling Attendants to the Met. (In point of fact, the statues had been broken into four pieces; Mr. Latchford donated three of them.) Although Mr. Latchford has not been named as a defendant in the Sotheby’s case, prosecutors allege that Duryodhanna was, in effect, laundered through his account at Spink. Mr. Latchford says that he never owned the statue, that Spink bought it from the Thai dealer upon his recommendation, and that he had it on reserve at Spink in 1970, but never actually bought it. Email from before the time when questions arose about the statue’s provenance supports his assertions. Why Spink, apparently without Mr. Latchford’s knowledge, used his funds for “accounting purposes” remains a mystery.
As for the Met’s statues, Mr. Latchford told The New York Times: “Spinks had the pieces for some time, and they had not sold, so in honor of the [Met’s] curator…they requested that I would provide financial aid to donate them, and that’s what I did…” He said he didn’t know how Spink had acquired the pieces, that he never took possession of them, and he doesn’t have any paperwork regarding the transaction. Nor does Spink. When asked about collecting artifacts in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he told Indiana Jones tales of the jungles of Thailand and Cambodia, where he and other collectors would buy, sell, and trade without concern for details about provenance. They thought of themselves as rescuers, not plunderers. “If the French and other Western collectors had not preserved this art, what would be the understanding of Khmer culture today?”
If Mr. Latchford sounds a bit patronizing, there is, nevertheless, some underlying validity to his assertion. If Cambodia is successful in its current campaign, two major U.S. museums will lose important works of art. Considering that most of the antiquities in Western museums have been removed from their original sites under circumstances inimical to their heritage, a worst-case scenario of cultural repatriation conjures up images of empty galleries.
More importantly, there were no generally accepted principles for protecting cultural heritage until 1970, when UNESCO adopted, and the United States ratified, the Convention of the Means of Protecting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The U.S. enabling legislation, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, authorizes the President to receive requests seeking import controls on certain archeological or ethnographic material, and provides for seizure by Customs. The Act is prospective, which is the reason for the intense focus on an object’s whereabouts before 1970. It should be noted that the Association of Art Museum Directors, the leading professional organization, did not adopt guidelines conforming to the UNESCO Convention until 2008. In 2013, “recognizing that a complete recent ownership history may not be obtainable for all archaeological material and every work of ancient art,” the AAMD carved out an exception allowing member museums “to exercise their institutional responsibility to make informed and defensible judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring such an object…”
The Cambodian repatriation campaign demonstrates just how common it is in the international antiquities trade for records of transactions (as recent as 20 years ago) to be missing, if not intentionally obfuscated. After all, the stakes are high, including not only large sums of money, but personal and professional reputations as well.
Sources: The New York Times, 12/13/2012, 11/14/2012, 9/29/2012, 6/2/2012; Association of Art Museum Directors, 1/29/2013.