PALM BEACH, FL – The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, in collaboration with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, announced on Thursday that a collection of 28 looted artifacts will be repatriated, according to the Phnom Penh Post. Seven other artifacts, including items from India, Myanmar, and Thailand, will also be returned to their respective countries of origin.
The collection belonged to the technology entrepreneur James H. Clark, who founded Netscape in 1994. Clark acquired his collection through the art dealer Douglas Latchford, who for decades was considered an authority on Cambodian art but was later alleged to have operated an extensive smuggling operation in which artifacts were trafficked through Thailand, where Latchford lived.
Latchford died in 2020 after being indicted the year before. Clark spent $35 million on the artifacts between 2003 and 2008.
Much of Latchford’s dealings were uncovered in the Pandora Papers investigation, which has led to investigations of other artifacts acquired through Latchford. The Pandora Papers revealed that Latchford created two funds based on the Island of Jersey named after the Hindu gods Skanda and Siva. He used these funds to launder money and disguise his trafficking.
The investigation has cast doubt on the provenance of many other pieces of Cambodian art. The Denver Art Museum has agreed to return four such pieces to Cambodia, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is discussing its holdings with federal authorities, according to the Washington Post.
Latchford sold these artifacts to customers like Clark and the museum curators with false accounts of their provenance. He claimed the pieces had been exported prior to a 1970 UNESCO convention banning illegal trade in cultural property, but the artifacts were in many cases freshly excavated. In emails with an unidentified associate, for example, Latchford referred to one piece, an Angkor Wat-style bronze sculpture of Shiva, as “fresh out of the ground, and needs to be cleaned” – hardly in keeping with the stories he told customers about items that had been exported decades earlier.
“I was freshly wealthy in the early 2000s,” just after selling his stake in Netscape to AOL, Clark said to the Washington Post. “I naively accumulated a bunch of pieces through Doug Latchford, and it wasn’t until near the end that I thought: ‘You know, this isn’t quite stacking up right.’”
Clark claims he quit dealing with Latchford after an incident where the dealer tried to sell him an artifact he claimed was worth $30 million, but would not respond to questions about its provenance. When authorities contacted him last year, Clark cooperated with the investigation and agreed to turn over his collection.
“I said: ‘Look, I’m not here to own things that are illegal,'” Clark said. “‘I will give back anything I have that you can demonstrate was illicitly imported.’”
The artifacts have largely been held in storage in Palm Beach, Florida, over the past decade, Clark said. They had previously been displayed in his Miami Beach penthouse. Clark claims that he often wanted to put some of the pieces back on display, but was thwarted: “The decorator we’d use for any place we had, he wasn’t excited about it,” he said.
Many of the artifacts are of Hindu or Buddhist figures. Among the items listed in U.S. Attorney Damian Williams’s court complaint are an 11th-century sandstone sculpture of Vishnu, a 12th century Angkor Wat-style Shiva, a 10th-century bronze sculpture likely of Lakshmi, and numerous depictions of Buddha ranging from the 8th to the 19th centuries, among many others.
Perhaps the most notable piece in the collection is a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of Ganesha. The complaint notes that the statue sold to Clark is a “near-twin” of a monumental Ganesha statue from the Koh Ker complex, which had been photographed by French archeologists in 1939. The Ganesha from Koh Ker has since disappeared, leading some Cambodian authorities to believe that the statue Clark purchased and the statue photographed in 1939 are one and the same.
An associate of Latchford, identified in the court complaint only as “the Scholar,” made a presentation for Clark in 2004 as he was preparing to purchase the relic. “There is nothing like it outside of Cambodia, and the famous published one has disappeared,” wrote “the Scholar.” “Whether it was blown up by the Khmer Rouge is unclear, but it certainly wasn’t in situ when [Latchford] and I visited Koh Ker a couple of years ago.”
If the statue from Clark’s collection is the same statue as the famous Koh Ker Ganesh, it has suffered considerable damage over the years. The statue is missing both of its hands, which were present in the 1939 photograph. The two pieces are unmistakably of a type, however, and if they are not the same piece they clearly come from the same artisans. The original statue is one of the top ten “most wanted” looted artifacts in the world by the Antiquities Coalition.
“This sculpture of Ganesha is another astonishing example of the brilliance of our ancestors. Ganesha, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head, is widely known for his wisdom and power to overcome obstacles and its return home will be a momentous occasion for Cambodia,” said Cambodian culture minister Phoeurng Sackona.
The pieces returned by Clark are expected to be back in Cambodia within six months. The hope is that they, along with other pieces smuggled out of the country by Latchford, will eventually appear in a new national museum wing.
Referring to the cooperation between the United States and Cambodia, Sackona said: “We are proud of our joint efforts, the cooperation between the governments of our two countries and their impact on restoring to our country important masterpieces of our cultural heritage for the benefit of all humanity and particularly Cambodia’s younger generation.”
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