Cambodia says it has recovered looted gold jewelry once worn by royals

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Cambodia says it has recovered looted gold jewelry once worn by royals
In an undated image provided by the Cambodia Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts, an Angkorian crown made from hammered gold that was returned to Cambodia. A hoard of 77 gold relics from the collection of Douglas A.J. Latchford, accused of trafficking in looted antiquities, were returned to Cambodia under an agreement with his estate. (Cambodia Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts via The New York Times)

by Tom Mashberg

NEW YORK, NY.- Some were jewel-encrusted diadems worn by Angkor royalty as far back as the ninth century. Other items were also treasured legacies of Cambodia’s past: belts and necklaces woven from fine gold filaments, or body ornaments shaped into rosettes and scrolling vines.

All were part of a hoard of 77 gold relics that Cambodian officials believe were looted by tomb raiders and whose return was celebrated Monday in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Each of the items came from the collection of Douglas A.J. Latchford, a dealer and scholar of ancient Cambodian art who was accused late in his life of having been an antiquities trafficking kingpin.

Hab Touch, secretary of state with Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts, said in an interview that the return of the gold items amounts to “getting back the crown jewels of the Angkor Empire.”

When he died in 2020 at age 88, Latchford was under indictment in the United States. His daughter subsequently returned more than 125 of his Khmer statues and other ancient items to Cambodia under a negotiated agreement. Returning the gold jewelry, much of which had been packed away in a London warehouse, was part of that deal.

As with the many statues, relics and religious totems that Cambodia has lost, the gold appears to have been looted from ancient temples and burial grounds between the 1970s and early 2000s, a time when the nation endured war and genocide, and later political upheaval.

Cambodian researchers believe that some of the gold adorned the earliest Angkorian kings, who founded the Khmer Empire (802 to 1431) and built its majestic temples.

“We did not know these items existed,” added Touch, who was in London last week to help oversee the return of the objects. “This is much more than what is in our museum.”

By weight alone, officials said, the gold is worth more than $1 million. But Bradley J. Gordon, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer for Cambodia who negotiated the return of the items, said the value was difficult to estimate because Angkorian gold is rare, has never been lawfully exported from Cambodia and almost never appears on the market.

“We really don’t want to put a price on it,” he said.

In 2008, Latchford, who had homes in Bangkok and London, collaborated on a book called “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods” that was filled with photos of the ancient splendors he had avidly acquired.

Cambodian officials have said the book shocked them because they had not realized that many of the items pictured even existed. Gordon said that, even with the return, as many as 30 major objects pictured in the book, including gilded Buddhas, masks adorned with thick gold earrings, and heavy pendants featuring rubies and pearls, are thought to be in the hands of private collectors, many of whom did business with Latchford.

Cambodian officials say their research indicates that Latchford bought many of the items directly from the leaders of organized looting gangs or from dealers in Thailand who were similarly acquiring them.

In a 2021 interview with The New York Times, Toek Tik, a reformed looter, said he had found and sold several of the items pictured in “Khmer Gold.”

Toek Tik, who spent several years cooperating with Cambodian authorities, said he dug the objects from jungle-entangled Khmer temples and burial grounds, sometimes finding the regalia in ceramic jars or under statues of figures from Hindu mythology.

Federal investigators in New York cited Toek Tik’s accounts when they indicted Latchford in 2019 on charges of illegally trading in Cambodian cultural artifacts. The collector “built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities,” officials from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said in the indictment.

Latchford’s name became so checkered that some museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Denver Museum of Art, repatriated objects that had been acquired from him. Private collectors have also relinquished many items in recent years that Latchford had a hand in bringing to market.

Cambodian officials are continuing to push the Met to return items that remain in its collection, especially those that they say Latchford had handled. Federal officials have entered the discussions in an effort to broker an agreement. In recent weeks, at least three items sought by Cambodia have been removed from display by the museum.

In response to a question on the recent removals, the Met said in a statement that “new information has come to light regarding certain dealers, and the museum elected to take gifts from those individuals off view while undertaking efforts to obtain additional research; to engage in dialogue with the Cambodian government; and to initiate cooperative discourse with the US attorney’s office.”

In 2009, Latchford returned a half-dozen gold pieces to Cambodia and received the Sahak Metrei friendship medal in recognition. (A year earlier, he had been awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Monisaraphon, the equivalent of a knighthood, for financial contributions to the country’s national museum.)

“I did not know, to be honest, that he had so much more,” Touch said. “He was clearly a very skilled person at deception.”

After Latchford’s death, his daughter and heir, Nawapan Kriangsak, agreed to return his collection, saying at the time that the works rightly belonged on Cambodian soil.

Those pieces went back to Cambodia in 2021 and 2022. The 77 gold items announced Monday were part of that agreement, but their return had been delayed by security and customs issues, officials said.

Reached by email, Kriangsak declined to comment on the return of the gold.

Sonetra Seng, a Cambodian culture ministry official and archaeology professor, said she felt a welter of emotions while observing the gold being packed in London for shipment home.

“I was excited and sad at the same time,” she said. “These items should never have been taken out of the ground this way, but there is a lot to learn from them now.”

Seng said that when she wrote a dissertation on Khmer jewelry more than a decade ago, she had so little gold to study that she mostly examined stone carvings in Cambodian temples that depicted royal figures wearing the finery. Now, she added, she will be able to analyze the ancient metallurgical and molding techniques and tiny details she has never seen before.

While in London, the Cambodian delegation sent to retrieve the gold visited the Tower of London to view Britain’s crown jewels.

“We thought we might get some ideas about how to display” the Khmer pieces in a new Phnom Penh museum, Touch said.

Cambodian investigators said emails and other communications found on Latchford’s computer show that he was trying to sell some of the gold shortly before he was indicted.

The emails indicate that Latchford was negotiating with potential buyers in Indonesia and Europe and had asked associates to deliver all his gold — which he kept in Thailand; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and England — to a London storage facility close to Wembley Stadium so buyers might view it all at once for ease of sale.

“We almost lost everything,” Gordon, the lawyer for Cambodia, said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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