“Probably the biggest art theft in history”

For more than ten years, the Cambodian government has collaborated with the federal attorney general in New York, European scientists, and American activists in an effort to unravel a massive international network dedicated to illegally smuggling stolen archaeological finds into Cambodia: said one of the advisers involved in the investigation. As an in-depth article by BloombergIt is suspected that Douglas Latchford, the British businessman living in Thailand who died in 2020 at the age of 88, before his trial, made this possible.

It is believed that in the second half of the 20th century, thousands of artifacts were removed and stolen from various Cambodian archaeological sites, particularly statues and artifacts dating back to the period of maximum expansion of the Khmer Empire, the people they were until the 15th century. Century ruled in the territory of present-day Cambodia and in much of Vietnam and Thailand. Khmer culture was strongly influenced by Hinduism, which inspired his religion and art, particularly in making statues of deities, carved in stone or made of bronze.

In recent decades, statues of religious figures stolen from lavish Khmer temples, such as the site of Koh Ker in the north of the country, have ended up in major Western museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or have been sold to private collectors, in most cases unaware to their origin. In general, they were taken from the sites where they were by groups of thieves, who then passed them on to the art dealers who, in turn, sold them abroad; Sometimes it was broken into smaller parts for easier transportation.

Some people in the art world knew Lachford by the nickname “Dynamite Dog”, as he was said to have used dynamite to recover artifacts.

Part of the archaeological site of Koh Ker, Cambodia (Wikimedia)

According to investigations, Latchford never went to loot Cambodian archaeological sites himself and it is not clear if he had direct contact with those who did. As . said Bloomberg Ashley Thompson, an expert on Southeast Asian art at University College London, was “one of the perpetrators of the mass looting of Cambodia in the second half of the twentieth century”: “It was a really terrible thing,” but “we knew that behind it was a man who lived in Bangkok.”

The statue of the epic character Duryodhana returned to Cambodia in 2013 (from the website of the United States Federal Agency that handles customs controls and illegal immigration)

Latchford was born in Mumbai to a fairly wealthy family when India was still a British colony. He moved to Thailand in the 1950s, working for a company that imported cosmetics and chemicals, and became interested in Cambodian art over dinner, even before he made his first trip to the country. In 1961, he first visited the site of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, and in the following years he began to acquire many businesses, thanks to the wealth he had accumulated through the pharmaceutical company he founded and various investments in this real estate sector.

like he said BloombergHis residence in downtown Bangkok was “essentially a museum of Khmer statues”, frequently welcoming other art dealers to whom he provided the exhibits he was able to obtain.

In the first half of the 1970s, Latchford was seen as a very influential collector and retailer in this field. In those years, a bloody civil war broke out in Cambodia and ended in 1975 with the establishment of the harsh “Khmer Rouge” regime, which ended after four years. For archaeologists and archaeologists who were interested in Khmer art, it was especially difficult to venture into the jungle to examine the ancient sites even after the end of the dictatorship, due to the thousands of mines set in large areas of the country; For the thieves who know the area, this was a good opportunity to make some money and recover from the long crisis that followed the dictatorship.

During the New York Federal Prosecutor’s Office investigation against Lachford, a Cambodian man who participated in the looting of the Koh Ker shrine in 1997 said the main buyer of the stolen works was “Sia Ford,” the name used by the raiders. Usually known as “Mr.” Lachford.

A Cambodian statue from the 10th century formerly displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a return to Cambodia ceremony in 2013 (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Until a few decades ago, there was little interest in how museums and art collectors obtained their ancient artwork, especially if it was from poor or formerly colonial nations. However, gradually things began to change since the 1990s, as more and more countries appealed to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Handling of Cultural Goods, which provided for the possibility of requiring the termination of those acts abroad that could not be demonstrated. Legality of purchase or transfer.

According to a study by Tess Davis, president of the Washington Organization that deals with anti-smuggling of art, 71 percent of the 377 derivative works of Khmer offered by Sotheby’s between 1988 and 2010 did not cite any source; For most others, fragmentary information was often presented.

The main charges against Latchford by the New York Attorney General were in fact those of fraud and conspiracy, as he forged documents relating to the provenance of the business he helped sell. Based on some emails seen before Bloomberg, Latchford sold the stolen works until 2018, two years before his death, in some cases being charged tens of millions of dollars.

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Two archaeologists reported Lachford to UNESCO and the US Department of Homeland Security, respectively, in 2007 and 2011.

Briton Simon Wrack and Frenchman Eric Bourdoneau did some research on Koh Ker and realized that the feet of a pair of statues removed from the site, still visible in the temple, were from work on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and another auctioned in Sotheby’s auction house in New York.

In 2012, a federal prosecutor in New York launched an investigation, claiming that the statue was stolen in the early 1970s (that is, after the UNESCO agreement was signed) and that, like the other, it was “obtained by a well-known collector of Khmer works” who later attempted to resell it on the international market. It was obvious to anyone familiar with the art of that period that this person was Latchford.

A pair of statues of Bhima (right) and Duryodhana (left) stolen from the Koh Ker archaeological site and returned to Cambodia, photographed in Phnom Penh on June 3, 2014 (Omar Havana/Getty Images)

According to some, Lachford was wrongly accused of carrying out activities he believed were morally acceptable. According to Davies, his role was instrumental in allowing artworks stolen by thieves to reach museums and collectors.

In May 2013, while investigating the New York Attorney General’s Office, the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return a pair of statues that, according to research by Cambodian authorities, had been illegally stolen from the Koh Ker temple; In the following years museums and other collectibles did the same. Lachford was not charged until November 2019; Emma C Banker, one of her closest collaborators, and Nancy Weiner, a well-known Manhattan trader who was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of buying and selling stolen business, were also investigated.

The trunk of the Rama, a 10th-century statue, is covered with necklaces of a jasmine flower. The Denver Museum of Art (US) returned the statue to the Cambodian government at a 2016 ceremony (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

After Wiener’s arrest, knowing his reputation was in danger, Lachford suggested to the Cambodian Ministry of Culture that he return some works from his private collection, requesting in return that he not be charged in the United States. However, negotiations came to nothing, and he died a few months after being formally charged, too ill to appear at trial.

After his death, his daughter Julia found an out-of-court settlement with the Cambodian government to return the family’s artifacts. Bunker died in February 2021; In November Weiner pleaded guilty to the charges, paying a total of $1.2 million in fines and damages.

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