The Metropolitan Museum of Art has sent representatives to meet with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office, amid reports that their collection could contain 12 objects which were stolen from Cambodia.
The New York City institution is one of five named in reports as possessing art bought from a British dealer, Douglas Latchford.
Latchford died in August 2020, aged 88, and was facing charges of trading in stolen antiquities at the time.
Earlier this month the Pandora Papers – a trove of 11.9 million leaked documents, detailing the hidden assets of some of the world’s most influential people – revealed the lengths to which Latchford went to hide his trail.
In 2011 he and his family had turned to a company specialized in helping wealthy families create offshore companies and trusts, allowing them to evade taxes and government oversight.
The Pandora Papers lifted the lid on his records, showing that he had sold directly to five museums – the British Museum, Denver Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Met.
A statue depicting the god Harihara is pictured. A similar statue was bought by the Met in 1977, and investigators now believe it may have been stolen from Cambodia
The Met, the most-visited museum in the United States and one of the top ten most visited in the world, is now in talks with prosecutors regarding the provenance of the 12 works
Douglas Latchford is seen in June 2009 shaking hands with the deputy prime minister of Cambodia, Sok An. Latchford was indicted in 2019 and died a year later, in 2020
The Met bought 12 items from Latchford – by far the most. Denver’s museum is already making plans to return their six items identified in the Pandora Papers.
An associate of Bangkok-based Latchford’s was indicted in the U.S. in 2016, and Latchford himself in 2019.
The scale of Latchford’s activities were laid bare by the Pandora Papers, and on Monday the Met confirmed that their representatives had met with officials from the U.S. attorney’s office.
They said the meeting was sought when ‘new information’ about some pieces in their collection pushed them to approach the Southern District of New York, The Washington Post reported.
‘Recently, in light of new information on some pieces in our collection, we reached out to the US Attorney’s office – to volunteer that we are happy to cooperate with any inquiry,’ the Met said in a statement on Sunday.
‘The Met also has a long and well documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate, being transparent about the provenance of works in the collection, and supporting further research and scholarship by sharing all known ownership history.’
Photographers take pictures of Khmer statues during a handover ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June 2014. Three ancient Angkorian statues were returned to Cambodia from the United States after they were stolen from the Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vihear province in the 1970s
Angkor Wat, one of the most stunning temple complexes in the world, has long drawn both admirers and looters
When Cambodia descended into war and chaos in the 1970s, thieves were quick to profit, looting many of the temples
Cambodia became a haven for traders in illicit antiquities during decades of war in the country beginning in the 1970s, when thieves ravaged the treasures of the ancient Khmer Empire.
The Cambodian government is now attempting to reclaim looted treasures, but often they are extremely well hidden.
Some museums have historically turned a blind eye.
In 2013 the Met did return to Cambodia two 10th-century Koh Ker stone statues of ‘Kneeling Attendants’, which were donated in separate stages to the Museum in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Another Harihara sculpture is seen in India
‘The Met recently came into possession of new documentary research that was not available to the Museum when the objects were acquired,’ the museum said at the time.
But Bradley Gordon, an attorney representing the Cambodian government, told The Washington Post that he did not feel the museum was moving fast enough.
He said that the Met has not contacted government officials there regarding the 12 pieces identified in the Pandora Papers.
‘The amazing thing is that these museums say they’re researching [the relics’ origins] but they have not contacted us,’ Gordon said.
‘How can they say they’re researching when they aren’t calling the country of origin?’
Among the 12 objects of interest is a sandstone statue of a figure called a Harihara.
The museum says the piece came from southern Cambodia and describes its style as ‘pre-Angkor period.’
It was purchased from one of Latchford’s collaborators, Spink & Son, in 1977.
A very similar piece is described in the Latchford indictment, with prosecutors saying it was looted.
The Spink & Son representative, according to prosecutors, was aware of Latchford’s plans to create false documentation for Khmer antiquities.
Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, is pictured in January 2018 showing the British ambassador to Cambodia around the National Museum in Phnom Penh
In a written statement last month, a spokeswoman for the Met said it was ‘unknown’ whether the Harihara in its collection is the same as the Harihara that prosecutors say was looted.
Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, said she was surprised to learn that the Met had acquired so many Khmer relics during unrest in the country.
‘The Cambodian government never gave permission for our national treasures to be trafficked to the United States,’ she said.
‘Today, we wish for the Metropolitan Museum to act as a moral and just leader in the global museum community and to return our precious looted antiquities to our people.’