The Metropolitan Museum of Art to Return 14 Looted Antiquities to Cambodia

The move is a step in the right direction according to Cambodian officials who are seeking the return of additional antiquities held by the museum.

Bust of head of Buddha pictured against black background
A 7th-century Head of Buddha is among the antiquities being returned. Metropolitan Museum of Art

After facing years of scrutiny of its holdings of looted Cambodian antiquities, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to repatriate more than a dozen works in its collection.

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The museum is voluntarily turning over the works after cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and Homeland Security Investigations, as announced today (Dec. 15). The move is a promising step forward for Cambodian officials, who claim additional looted antiquities are still held by the institution.

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“If you work at one of these institutions or for a private collection and have concerns that certain pieces may be tied to illicit trafficking, do the right thing: come forward and work with us on a voluntary basis to facilitate the return to the rightful owners,” said Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement. “That is a far better outcome for you and your institution than if our investigation leads to a knock on your door.”

Among the 14 items to be returned, at least 13 are linked to Douglas A.J. Latchford, an art collector and dealer who in 2019 was indicted for antiquity trafficking. They include a 7th-century head of Buddha to a 10th-century goddess sandstone statue from the Koh Ker archeological site, and some will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) while repatriation arrangements are made. The museum is also planning on returning two Khmer works associated with Latchford to Thailand.

Sandstone statue depicting a goddess
A 10th-century sandstone statue from Koh Ker will be turned over by the museum. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Latchford, who died in 2020 and was investigated for his involvement in an extensive antiquity trafficking network in Cambodia, supplied works to institutions around the globe and acted as a prolific donor to museums like the Met. Following his indictment, the Met reached out to federal prosecutors and Cambodian officials and received information that “made it clear that we should initiate the return of this group of sculptures,” according to a statement from Max Hollein, the museum’s director.

In recent months, the museum has made efforts to overhaul its approach towards items that may have entered its collection unethically. The Met announced its intention to form a team of provenance researchers earlier this year, while also introducing plans to expedite and broaden its investigation of pieces linked to questionable dealers.

For some, this progress has been a long time coming. “The Met should have made this decision much earlier,” Bradley Gordon, an attorney for the Cambodian government, told Observer of the returns. “We believe the U.S. Government’s leadership, negotiations and investigations along with our own direct negotiations and media scrutiny have made a difference.”

Will there be more returns?

Despite applauding the Met’s decision, the Cambodian government is still seeking the return of additional antiquities it believes were taken illicitly. “We have many more treasures at the Met we also hope will be returned to Cambodia,” said Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, in a statement.

The museum says it will continue to review, research and share information regarding its collection of Khmer art with officials in both Cambodia and Thailand. This process will include opening up its acquisition records for examination, according to a letter from Hollein to the Cambodian government.

“We hope the Met will now more closely inspect, and allow us to see, the records for the remaining Cambodian collection to determine if there is any reasonable basis for the Met’s continued possession of Cambodia’s national treasures,” said Gordon. “We view this as a good start, but clearly there needs to be further returns.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art to Return 14 Looted Antiquities to Cambodia