The Cambodian art smuggling scandal that’s ready to erupt

The Metropolitan Museum may not be the last institution to return looted sculptures

The looted Prasat Chen temple complex in Koh Ker © Socheat Nhean

The looted Prasat Chen temple complex in Koh Ker © Socheat Nhean

The return to Cambodia of two tenth-century Khmer sandstone sculptures, which had been displayed for nearly 20 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, made headline news around the world this summer. The restitution was greeted enthusiastically by Cambodia’s Council of Ministers when the sculptures, looted from the ancient city of Koh Ker in the 1970s, arrived in Phnom Penh in June. The restitution is now shining a spotlight on the degree of damage to Koh Ker and raises questions about a number of masterpiece sculptures in public and private collections.

The so-called “Kneeling Attendants” are now known to have come from Prasat Chen, the temple complex at the heart of Chok Gargyar (today called Koh Ker), which, for a short period in the tenth century, eclipsed even Angkor in its magnificence. Koh Ker is in a remote part of northern Cambodia; it was covered by jungle for centuries and only rediscovered in the late 19th century. Although there was previous damage, many experts say that looting began in earnest during the political upheaval and civil war of the 1960s and 1970s, and amid the chaos of the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, although others say that the extensive damage is even more recent.

The Met announced its decision to return the sculptures on 3 May—a year after the Cambodian government requested their return. The decision was the result of a process in which an art historian played a leading role, but it also indicates the degree of diplomatic pressure that is being brought to bear on the US government.

If dealers placed an order, the looters would go back to the temples and hack more sculptures off the walls
Anne Lemaistre, Unesco representative in Cambodia

In February, two federal lawyers, Sharon Levin and Alexander Wilson, travelled to Cambodia from New York. They visited Prasat Chen to collect evidence to bolster an ongoing federal investigation into the looting of other treasures from the temple. In March, Sharon Cott, general counsel at the Metropolitan Museum, went to Phnom Penh with John Guy, the museum’s curator of Southeast Asian art. They were given proof that the statues had been looted. An archaeological dig at Koh Ker had unearthed the plinths of the two statues in a temple that had been destroyed around 1972.

The Met decided voluntarily to return the statues, issuing a press release saying that it had “recently come into possession of new documentary research that was not available to the museum when the objects were acquired”, two decades ago. The Cambodian government praised the Met’s “high ethical standards”.

Stripped of its statues

Anne Lemaistre, the Unesco representative in Cambodia, who played a discreet advisory role in the Met case, describes how Koh Ker has been ravaged and stripped of its finest statuary. “Cambodia has witnessed unprecedented looting of its archaeological sites,” she says. “It began in the 1960s and has never stopped.” Convoys of trucks, some with a military escort, transported art treasures to Thailand, where they were sold to wealthy Westerners. “We’ve found photographs of looters posing next to bas-reliefs to demonstrate their size,” Lemaistre says. “If dealers placed an order, they would go back and hack more sculptures off the walls.”

Cambodia is now seeking the return of its treasures, while trying to make secure all the great temples that are accessible to visitors. With the help of Unesco and France, the government has set up a heritage police unit, and has trained its customs officers. However, it is not an easy task to patrol a country with 3,000 archaeological sites, many in isolated spots. “Having pillaged the sculptures, looters have begun stripping off architectural features,” Lemaistre says. “Stone inscriptions are broken up to be sold as individual works of art, making it impossible for scholars to study them. In 2011, Unesco sent a team to Preah Khan in Kompong Svay—a very large, remote temple complex. What we saw was enough to make anyone weep. Temples had been brutally dismantled with saws and chisels. There had been unsuccessful attempts; partially smashed heads. This has taken place in the early 21st century, up to 2006. And if that weren’t enough, they’d blown up whole sections with dynamite to get the bas-reliefs off. In some places, the entire temple has been reduced to dust.”

Off with their heads

The first thing the looters do is decapitate the statues, as heads are greatly prized by collectors. The Met reassembled its two statues from four pieces it acquired between 1987 and 1992. Three of the pieces were obtained from a British resident of Bangkok: Douglas Latchford, then an associate of Spink & Son, a London auction house. The fourth was donated by a Californian couple—who, as it turned out, had also bought it from Latchford, through Spink. There was no historical information on the Met’s label describing these two statues: they were merely referred to as “kneeling attendants”. It is surprising, to say the least, that the institution showed no concern about its sculptures being delivered as four separate pieces, all originating from the same source.

Latchford told the Bangkok Post in 2010 that 'most of the pieces I have come across have been found or dug up by farmers in fields'. He added that it is a good thing that major statues have been saved, otherwise 'they would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge'.

A well-known figure in Bangkok, Latchford, 81, describes himself as an “adventurer-scholar”. Born in Bombay to English parents, he did well in the pharmaceutical and property businesses and is now an impresario running body-building competitions. He has also built a reputation as a world expert in Khmer antiquities and as the author of important reference works. His donations of Khmer artefacts to the Cambodian state resulted in the award of a knighthood there in 2008.

Last year, Latchford gave an interview to Tom Mashberg of the New York Times from his Bangkok home, which is filled with statues of the Buddha and of Siamese and Burmese gods. He recounted how, half a century ago, he began to travel the dirt roads of Thailand and Cambodia in a jeep to explore temple ruins overgrown by huge kapok trees. He was a regular visitor to the locally nicknamed “thieves’ market” in Bangkok when the first sculptures from Cambodia—then in the midst of its civil war—began to make their appearance there. He and other collectors like him were rescuers, he said: as a believer in reincarnation, he told Mashberg that two Buddhist priests had told him that “in a previous life I had been Khmer, and that what I collect had once belonged to me”.

Latchford said he has never been involved in art smuggling, and told the Bangkok Post in 2010 that “most of the pieces I have come across have been found or dug up by farmers in fields”. He added that it is a good thing that major statues have been saved, otherwise “they would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge”.

Latchford has donated artefacts to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, where the two statues returned by the Met are now displayed. He has also given four sculptures to the Denver Art Museum, and sold it another two.

Hab Touch, the director-general of Cambodia’s department of heritage, has said: “His gifts are very important because these artefacts teach the Cambodian people about their history. We hope his generosity will set a good example for others.” Others question Latchford’s involvement with unprovenanced antiquities. When he lends artefacts to major museums, the objects are returned, they say, legitimised, with official pedigrees.

Piecing together the puzzle

Museums have made the most of Latchford’s largesse. His donations to the Met were made, he said, “in honour of Martin Lerner”, the museum’s curator of Asian art, who retired in 2005 and with whom Latchford appears to have been on excellent terms. Now that the Met is preparing a major exhibition on the Khmer empire, to be staged next year, it has invited Cambodian museum curators to examine its collection. This could well lead to provenance research being undertaken on another 20 pieces, several of which were also obtained from Latchford and Spink. (The company now trading—Spink & Son Ltd—was incorporated as a separate legal entity in 2002, under entirely separate ownership from the entity that was involved with Latchford.)

The puzzle of the Met’s “Kneeling Attendants” seems to have many other missing pieces. It all began with research into the inscriptions at the Koh Ker site by Eric Bourdonneau, a senior lecturer at the Paris-based École Française d’Extrême-Orient (the French School of Asian Studies). He identified two significant tableaux from the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, within the Prasat Chen enclosure. The temple was devoted to the cosmic Hindu god Vishnu, and the sculptors had depicted the god’s two main avatars, Rama and Krishna.

The French scholar was able to determine that 15 sculptures now owned by various museums and private collections originally formed two scenes at each of the temple’s gateways, to the east and to the west. These masterpieces were precursors of the magnificent tenth-century tradition of Khmer art; in Bourdonneau’s view, “no other group of sculptures illustrates the creativity of the artists of the time quite so spectacularly”.

By comparing these works with the bas-reliefs at Banteay Srei, another Khmer temple around 100km from Prasat Chen, Bourdonneau found that the Met’s two kneeling figures were neither attendants nor temple guards, but members of the warrior Pandava clan. A line of Pandava brothers was depicted watching the duel between the eldest sibling, Bhima, and his cousin, Duryodhana, a powerful and cruel king in the Mahabharata. This duel, with Krishna as arbiter, was represented on the western gateway of the temple.

It was Bourdonneau’s research, backed up by evidence from the dig and communicated by Unesco to the Cambodian and US authorities, that provided the basis for an ongoing federal investigation—for the statues of the two duelling heroes were also missing. They have since been traced. The sculpture that shows Bhima preparing to break his rival’s legs with a blow from his mace is in California, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena (the museum says it is co-operating with the federal investigation). Simon Warrack, a stone conservator working with Iccrom (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), discovered the plinth with the broken feet of the statue at Koh Ker. These feet appear to match the Norton Simon’s sculpture.

A plinth with broken feet: they appear to match a statue in Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum Photo: Tess Davis

The case of the other statue involves a Sotheby’s sale. In 2011, after Cambodia registered a protest, the auction house withdrew a statue valued at $2m to $3m—now thought to be Duryodhana leaping into the air—from a sale in New York. Federal prosecutors filed legal papers in New York shortly afterwards, seeking the forfeiture of the statue on the grounds that it had been stolen from Cambodia and illegally imported into the US.

Sotheby’s says in a statement that “the Met’s voluntary agreement” does not “shed any light on the key issues” of its own case. The counsel for Sotheby’s and the sculpture’s current owner— a Belgian woman, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who bought the piece with her husband from Spink in London in 1975—argued in its court submission that even if the statue had been removed from Koh Ker, Cambodia had failed to demonstrate the legal grounds for its claim. It argued that there was no indication of when the sculpture had been removed from Prasat Chen, which had been “abandoned to the jungle 50 generations ago”, and asked on what legal grounds modern-day Cambodia considered itself the heir of everything a long-defunct, tenth-century regime had made. Counsel also wrote: “The [US] government’s continued failure to identify a clear and unambiguous ownership law… means that the motion… should be denied. The absence of such a law also prevents the government from calling into question the good faith of either Ms Ruspoli or Sotheby’s. Both were entitled to conclude from the absence of any clear law vesting ownership in Cambodia that the statue was not stolen when removed from Cambodia. And both were certainly entitled to conclude that it did not remain stolen at the time of import into the United States, almost two decades after the period allotted by English law for Cambodia to make a claim had expired.”

Sotheby’s moved to have the case dismissed, but a New York judge, George Daniels, decided that the US government may proceed. The case is expected to go to trial, with the timing at the discretion of the court (possibly in 2014). The US government’s case is that the statue was not bought in good faith by the Belgian couple, and that there were few takers even in the 1970s for this artefact with no provenance. In this case, too, the head had been cut off, then reattached. And here, too, Spink and Latchford had put the statue up for sale. (In his defence, Latchford has said that he was not, in fact, the owner.) Sotheby’s and the owner’s counsel argue that the US government is moving the goalposts and attempting to seize legitimately acquired private property.

An officer and a scholar

The evidence provided to the judge by the US Attorney’s Office included extracts from revealing correspondence between an unnamed Sotheby’s official (the “Officer”) and a Khmer scholar (the “Scholar”) who had been asked by the auction house to advise on the sculpture. This scholar was identified as Emma Bunker when Sotheby’s counsel also submitted correspondence, arguing that the extracts were misleading and taken out of context.

Bunker is a close friend of Latchford’s, and has co-written three books with him. Latchford also donated and sold artefacts to the Denver Art Museum, where she is a voluntary adviser and lecturer for the Asian art department. The pair were in close contact over the sale of the statue now thought to be of Duryodhana.

If you get bad press it will be from the US—from academics and ‘temple-huggers’, not Cambodians
Emma Bunker, Khmer scholar, in correspondence with Sotheby's

In June 2010, the “Scholar” expressed concern to Sotheby’s about putting up the statue for sale, writing that “I have been doing a little catch-up research on Koh Ker” and that the Cambodians “now have clear evidence that that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ”. She attached a preliminary report from a conservator. The scholar added: “Please do not give this report to anyone outside Sotheby’s, as I often have access to such material and I don’t want to anger my sources.” She wrote: “It would be hugely unwise to offer the [sculpture] publicly and I would not feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances.”

In a later message, however, the scholar’s position has completely changed. She writes that “there are no plans at all for Cambodia or the National Museum of Cambodia to ask for the return of anything at [a number of redacted museum names]… I think that Sotheby’s can therefore go ahead and plan to sell the Koh Ker Guardian, but perhaps not good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalogue.” She restated: “The piece was obtained legally so can be legally sold.”

Correspondence from 9 August, published by Sotheby’s, suggests that Emma Bunker advised against the Sotheby’s legal department’s suggestion that she share her write-up of the piece with Hab Touch in Cambodia. Bunker wrote: “If this is brought to his attention specifically, now that he is minister of culture, he will be forced to do something, and might not make any decision for months. He has stated that Cambodia will not try to get back the Norton Simon piece, even though the feet have been found at Koh Ker. Sending him the write-up specifically would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” In the same message, the scholar expressed her annoyance with Anu Ghosh-Mazumdar, Sotheby’s head of Indian and Southeast Asian art in New York, who kept referring to the statue as “a Khmer dancer”. “Please stop calling the figure a dancer, as it is not dancing,” she wrote. “It is a warrior figure that was in combat with its opponent, [the statue] at the Norton Simon.” (Despite this email, Sotheby’s did, in fact, write to Cambodia’s ministry of culture in November 2010.)

Tensions were running high as the sale date approached. But the auction was going ahead because of a significant error of judgement—the belief that Phnom Penh would do nothing to stop it. On 8 September 2010, Ghosh-Mazumdar noted in an email to herself (“Emmy in conversation with Anu”) Bunker's view that “if you get bad press it will be from the US—from academics and ‘temple-huggers’, not Cambodians”.

Nonetheless, the desire to establish a provenance to “before 1970” (the year of the Unesco convention) so that big clients and US museums would be able to participate in the auction was expressed more than once. In one email, David Weldon, Sotheby’s senior consultant on Indian and Southeast Asian art, wrote: “I’m sure Zara [Zara Porter-Hill, the director of the Indian and Southeast Asian art department in London] can ask him [Douglas Latchford] to sign to say he had [the statue] in his possession in the 60s before he sold it in 1975 through Spink.” In another email, Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s vice-chairman of Asian art, asks colleagues how research into Spink adverts from the 1960s is progressing.

In March 2011, one day before the statue was due to be auctioned, Sotheby’s received an official letter from Cambodia, at which point it withdrew the object from the sale.

One of the two Pandava brothers (left) returned to Cambodia by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June. Two sculptures from the same looted temple complex have been traced: a statue of Duryodhana (centre), which was withdrawn from sale by Sotheby’s in 2011 and is now the subject of a US federal lawsuit, and a sculpture of Bhima (right), now in the Norton Simon Museum

Hunt for the holy grail

Latchford and Bunker took specialists by surprise with their 2004 catalogue Adoration and Glory: the Golden Age of Khmer Art, which boasts “several unknown works of great quality, never mind the problem of the lack of information on their provenance”, as Pierre Baptiste and Thierry Zéphir of the Musée Guimet in Paris wrote at the time in the magazine Arts Asiatiques.

A worldwide hunt has been launched for the artefacts. Eric Bourdonneau has spotted various pieces in private collections, and believes that the statues of the monkey god Hanuman at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the archer Rama at the Denver Art Museum originally decorated the eastern gateway to Prasat Chen. Rama—recognisable because of his quiver—is the hero of the Ramayana, and is often depicted alongside his faithful monkey companion. Bourdonneau’s arguments are set out in Nouvelles recherches sur Koh Ker, in the periodical Monuments et mémoires, 2001.

According to Chasing Aphrodite, a blog set up by two journalists at the Los Angeles Times to track the trade in illicit antiquities and which has been following the Koh Ker lootings closely, four other statues loaned by Latchford—including a statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, from the Koh Ker temple complex—have been seen in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin. After repeated requests by Chasing Aphrodite, the museum acknowledged that it did not follow its own due diligence procedure when it accepted the loan of the statues, which did not have detailed provenance, for its reopening in 2000. The blog also cites acquisitions of sculptures from elsewhere in Asia by museums such as the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas, through the Bangkok-based collector-dealer.

A major scandal looks to be on the cards, on a par with the Sevso treasure affair (in 1990, Sotheby’s had to withdraw from the sale of a treasure trove of Roman-era silver owned by the Marquess of Northampton) or the Medici affair, which resulted in spectacular restitutions to Italy and Greece.

• This article originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "The smuggling scandal that’s ready to erupt"