Cambodia Demands British Museums Return Stolen Khmer Artifacts
Stolen Khmer artifacts from ancient Cambodian temples should be returned now. This is what Cambodian heritage authorities have told London's Victoria & Albert and British Museum who currently profit from scores of once looted Khmer artifacts.
Until the 7th century AD, Cambodian (Khmer) arts were greatly influenced by Indian Hindu themes. By the 10th century, however, Khmer artisans had formulated their own distinct style of sculpting which scholars say is closer to the wholeness of Egyptian sculpture than it is to Indian styles. Standing sentinel among thousands of jungle temples is the massive Angkor Wat representing the largest religious complex ever built, and Banteay Srei, a comparatively tiny hospital temple.
All Khmer temples are completely covered with sculpted deities, spirits and demons. Garuda is part man and part bird, Apsaras are celestial dancing girls, Dvarapalas are demonic temple guardians with clubs and Gajasimha is a mythical animal with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. These figures and many more were among the hundreds of sculptures smashed from their plinths, looted, and sold to British and US museums. Now Cambodia wants them back!
Clear evidence that Khmer artifacts were brutally taken and now these feet have been clearly linked to famous museum collections in the UK and US. ( YouTube screenshot / Smart History)
When Stolen Khmer Artifacts Become War Crimes
Cambodia's culture minister appealed to the Victoria & Albert (V&A) and British Museums (BM) to return scores of Khmer artifacts it claims were “ stolen from its temples.” Believed to enshrine the souls of their kings and ancestors, many of these temple statues were illegally removed from Cambodia by the late Douglas Latchford.
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According to the Washington Post , beginning in the 1970s, Latchford, an English explorer, arts connoisseur and author, helicoptered into remote Cambodia and amassed “one of the world’s largest private collections of Khmer treasures.” The Cambodian Ministry of Culture's chief legal counsel and the head of its investigative team, Brad Gordon, told the BBC that trading in these items should be “considered a war crime”.
Plundering Ancient Treasures In The Fog Of Modern War
Members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and murdered more than two million citizens. They controlled swathes of Cambodia up to the early 90s, and most of the temples were looted during these three chaotic decades. In 2012, Lachford was identified by US prosecutors in a case targeting a New York artifacts dealers , and in 2019 he was charged for smuggling stolen antiquities, but he died in 2020 before going to trial.
Phoeurng Sackona, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture, recently wrote to Nadine Dorries, her British equivalent, informing her that around 100 important cultural treasures that were stolen from sacred temples are now in two London museums. The letter reminded Dorries of the Hague Convention document signed on 14 May 1954 which protects cultural property seized during armed conflicts.
Museologists at the Victoria and Albert Museum said they “welcomed constructive dialogue” and staff at the BM said they would “consider the requests carefully and respectfully.”
All of these Khmer artifacts were looted from Cambodia purchased by major museums in the US. The Cambodian government is now accusing Britain’s two largest museums of the same crimes! ( YouTube screenshot / Smart History)
A High Class, Low Minded, British Criminal
Brad Gordon said Lachford tried to offload his collection “right up until he went into the hospital and died.” Julia Latchford, Douglas's daughter, says she has already transferred her entire collection to the Cambodian authorities with five major objects already repatriated. However, about 50 pieces are currently on display at the two London museums generating cash income from tourists.
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Sopheap Meas, an archaeologist on the investigative team, said Cambodians believe the statues contain the “soul of a king, a god or maybe an ancestor.” Brad Gordon told the BBC that everyone in the world knew what was happening in Cambodia and that the BM and the V&A “shouldn't have accepted these pieces.” There is little room for excuses here as Gordon added most of the hundred plus artifacts have “no export licence or permit,” therefore, the two museums are holding “stolen property that needs to come back to Cambodia,” says Gordon.
Top image: Khmer artifacts have been looted all over Cambodia, here a looted scene of Koh Ker, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Source: YukselSelvi/Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie