Looted Cambodian antiquities once in Denver Art Museum headed back home

Four looted Cambodian antiquities that once sat in the Denver Art Museum soon will be headed back to their ancestral homeland.

The four pieces were part of 30 antiquities officially handed over by U.S. authorities to the Cambodian government on Monday during a repatriation ceremony in New York City — a momentous event for the Southeast Asian nation that has spent years trying to reclaim its plundered history from all corners of the globe.

“It’s like a returning of the souls of our culture back to our people,” Keo Chhea, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, said during the ceremony. “We’re very grateful.”

The antiquities that were on display Monday in New York date back more than a thousand years and showcase the might of the powerful Khmer Empire, a vast swath of land that covered much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam.

The prized relics included figurative sculptures, ceremonial bowls and elephant-headed Hindu gods. They ranged from seven inches in height to more than five feet tall and four tons in weight. All told, Cambodia estimates their total value at $35 million.

“These antiquities we return today were ripped from their country,” Ricky J. Patel, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said in a statement. “Beyond their extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, many are sacred artifacts pried from temples and palaces to be smuggled across borders and peddled by those seeking profit, without any regard to the intangible value they have to the people of their homeland. …

“These artifacts belong to the people of Cambodia, and we are proud to participate in their recovery and their return home.”

All 30 pieces are tied to a single man: Douglas Latchford, a Bangkok-based art collector and dealer indicted by U.S. authorities in 2019 on a host of charges related to trafficking illicit antiquities. Latchford died before he could stand trial, but federal prosecutors alleged he ran a decades-long scheme to sell looted goods from Southeast Asia to rich collectors and prominent museums from Denver to Australia.

After his death, Latchford’s daughter agreed to return many pieces of his collection to Cambodia, but countless items remain scattered in private collections and museums.

The four relics from Denver include a 12th-to-13th century Khmer sandstone sculpture depicting standing Prajnaparamita, a 7th-to-8th century Khmer sandstone sculpture depicting standing Surya, an Iron Age Dong Son bronze bell, and a 7th-to-8th century sandstone lintel depicting the sleep of Vishnu and birth of Brahma.

Federal investigators alleged that Latchford swindled the Denver Art Museum in the early 2000s by providing false provenance — or ownership history — for the Prajnaparamita and Surya and lying repeatedly about how he obtained the valuable relics.

For the two other items, the Bell and the Lintel, Latchford provided the museum limited provenance information, according to a November forfeiture complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Eradicating the illegal trade in stolen antiquities requires the vigilance of all parties in the art market,” Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a news release in November, “especially cultural institutions.”

The Denver Art Museum voluntarily relinquished the items after the forfeiture complaint was filed. A museum spokesperson at the time told The Post that the institution “welcomed… the announcement” and that it’s “grateful that these pieces will be returning to their rightful home.”

The Denver Art Museum declined to comment on Monday’s repatriation ceremony.

The Cambodian government announced that the other 26 antiquities at the New York ceremony were in the private collection of James H. Clark, the founder of Netscape. The wealthy businessman agreed to give up the items in January after federal investigators persuaded him that they were looted from Cambodia.

The New York Times, however, reported that one of those items — a 10th-century sandstone statue known as “Skanda on a Peacock” — had been relinquished voluntarily by an unidentified collector who had bought it from Latchford for $1.5 million in 2000.

Clark told the Times that he had spent about $35 million buying dozens of Cambodian and Southeast Asian antiquities.

“One day I recall walking through my apartment looking at these objects and thinking, ‘They really should be in a museum, and not in private hands,’” Clark told the newspaper Monday. “And that’s where they will be.”

Other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are researching items believed to be connected to Latchford and his associates.

Cambodian officials have been on a years-long quest to reclaim their nation’s history after decades of plundering from thousand-year-old Khmer temples.

Looting was widespread during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, but continued even in the decades following the regime’s fall.

“We commend individuals and institutions who decided to do the right thing, and after learning about the origin of the antiquities in their possession, decided to voluntarily return those pieces to their homeland,” said Williams, who hosted the event. “We want to encourage anyone out there, who believes that they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities in their possession, to come forward.”

 The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this report.

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