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August 9, 2022New York, NY, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

30 looted antiquities returned to Kingdom of Cambodia

Statues, artifacts sold by antiquities dealer, Douglas Latchford, to collectors, museum in US

NEW YORK — On Aug. 8, Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Ricky J. Patel, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York, announced the return of 30 antiquities to the Kingdom of Cambodia, which were stolen as part of an organized looting network and sold by antiquities dealer, Douglas Latchford. Among the antiquities returned was a 10th Century sculpture of Skanda on a Peacock and a monumental 10th Century sculpture of Ganesha, both looted from the ancient Khmer capital Koh Ker. Cambodian Ambassador to the United States Keo Chhea received the antiquities during a ceremony at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“These antiquities we return today were ripped from their country – beyond their extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, many are sacred artifacts pried from temples and palaces to be smuggled across borders and peddled by those seeking profit, without any regard to the intangible value they have to the people of their homeland, said Patel. “For over five years, the agents, and experts in HSI New York’s specialized dedicated Cultural Property, Arts, and Antiquities Unit, alongside our government partners, hunted down leads, examined origin, reviewed financial records, and conducted dozens of interviews to find and recover these pieces we are returning today. These artifacts belong to the people of Cambodia and we are proud to participate in their recovery and their return home.”

The 30 antiquities returned were the subjects of three civil forfeiture actions filed in the Southern District of New York. According to the civil forfeiture complaints filed in 2021 and 2022, and other documents filed in the cases, the antiquities repatriated to Cambodia are sandstone and bronze sculptures and artifacts, ranging in age from the Bronze Age to the 12th Century, which were either removed illegally from Cambodia by looters, imported into the United States based on false statements to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or both.

“We celebrate the return of Cambodia’s cultural heritage to the Cambodian people and reaffirm our commitment to reducing the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities,” said Williams. “It is with great pleasure that we send the Skanda on a Peacock and the rest of these artworks on the final leg of their journey home.”

During the civil conflicts of late 20th century, statues and other artifacts were stolen from Koh Ker and other archeological sites in Cambodia and entered the international art market through an organized looting network. Local teams of looters would first remove the statues from the original sites. The statues would then be transported to the Cambodia-Thailand border and transferred to brokers who would in turn transport them to dealers in Khmer artifacts located in Thailand, particularly Bangkok. These dealers would sell the artifacts to local or international customers, who would either retain the pieces or sell them on the international art market.

Bangkok-based antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, aka “Pakpong Kriangsak,” sold the antiquities to individuals in the Western art market, including the two private collectors and an American museum which were the prior owners of the pieces returned today. In 2019, Latchford was charged with wire fraud conspiracy and other crimes related to a many-year scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market, primarily by creating false provenance documents and falsifying invoices and shipping documents. The indictment was ultimately dismissed due to the death of Latchford.

Once the prior owners were contacted by the United States, they agreed to relinquish possession of the antiquities and to waive all claims of right, title, and interest in them.

This matter is being handled by the U.S. Attorney Office’s Money Laundering and International Criminal Enterprises Unit. Assistant U. S. Attorney Jessica Feinstein oversees the case.

As a federal law enforcement agency with a global reach, HSI is a leader in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. Federal importation and customs laws give HSI the unique authority to seize cultural property and art brought into the United States illegally. HSI uses a whole of government approach with our partners in this effort, including the Department of State, CBP, and the Department of Justice, as well as the private sector.

HSI works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships. Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 15,000 objects to over 40 countries and institutions. Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or to complete the online tip form.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 86 overseas locations in 55 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.