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US museum returns stolen Cambodian artifacts

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A renowned US museum has committed to returning over a dozen valuable antiquities to Cambodia, as revealed by prosecutors on Friday.

The artifacts, including a priceless 10th-century goddess sandstone statue and a Buddha head from the 7th century, were unlawfully acquired and trafficked into the museum’s collection by prolific antiquities trafficker Douglas Latchford.

Latchford, charged in 2019 with leading a major network involved in the theft of treasures from Southeast Asia, had orchestrated a scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market. Despite his indictment being dismissed following Latchford’s death, the museum, identified as the Met, voluntarily initiated the process of returning the artifacts.

The Met, where the stolen items were displayed, clarified that 14 sculptures would be returned to Cambodia, and two to Thailand. The decision to return the antiquities was a result of a cooperative partnership between the museum, prosecutors, and Cambodian officials.

Key pieces, including the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease (late 10th-early 11th century) and the monumental stone Head of Buddha (7th century), will remain on view in the museum’s galleries for South Asian art until arrangements for their return to their countries of origin are finalized.

The Met recently announced measures to enhance the respect for cultural property, including a comprehensive review of its inventory. The Cambodian culture ministry emphasized the cultural significance of the retrieved artifacts, describing them as “the soul of our ancestors.”

These stolen works, dating back to the Angkorian era, were taken at the end of the 20th century during Cambodia’s wars in the 1970s and its reopening to the outside world in the 1990s.

Thousands of statues and sculptures were trafficked internationally over decades, with New York serving as a trafficking hub. Over the past two years, more than 1,000 pieces worth $225 million have been returned to various countries, including Cambodia, China, India, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Notably, New York has seen the seizure of antiquities from museums and private collectors since 2021.

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