Cambodian officials have celebrated the return of five important ancient Khmer sculptures from the collection of Douglas Latchford, among more than 100 his daughter Julia promised to return after his death last year.
Latchford, a businessman who lived between the UK and Thailand, was a world expert on Khmer antiquities and a prolific collector, but in 2019 he was indicted in the US on charges of smuggling and forging documents. He died in 2020 before reaching trial.
Latchford came under scrutiny in 2011 after US authorities took legal action to stop the sale by Sotheby’s of a 10th-century Cambodian sandstone sculpture, the Duryodhana bondissant, worth millions, which was alleged to have been stolen from Prasat Chen, a temple at the 10th-century Khmer capital, Koh Ker.
More questions were raised when New York dealer Nancy Wiener was indicted in 2016 for possessing stolen property. Two of the artefacts were sourced from Latchford. On Thursday Wiener pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property in connection with allegedly looted artefacts from India and south-east Asia. Some of the items were sold to galleries in Australia, and in some cases have since been returned to their country of origin.
Julia Latchford, also known as Nawapan Kriangsak, told the New York Times in January: “Despite what people say or accuse against Douglas, my father started his collection in a very different era, and his world has changed … I would like everything that Douglas assembled be kept where people around the world can enjoy it and understand it. There is no better place than Cambodia, where the people revere these objects not just for their art or history, but for their religious significance.”
Bradley Gordon, the lawyer representing the Cambodian Ministry for Culture, said on Wednesday: “We signed the agreement with Julia Latchford on 29 September 2020. Exactly a year later these five masterpieces have come back to Cambodia.”
The five sculptures returned last week could soon be joined by the rest of the Latchford collection, with the Cambodian government expected to request their physical return soon.
The National Gallery of Australia is also working towards the return of an important Cham sculpture after discovering its links to Latchford.
The NGA confirmed on Wednesday it was awaiting some final research about the exact origin of a Cham bronze trio bought by the gallery for $US1.5m in 2011. An announcement is expected within weeks.
The 50cm-tall bronze Padmapani and two smaller attendants was described by the NGA’s director at the time, Ron Radford, as “perhaps the most extraordinary work acquired this year”.
But the NGA has since confirmed that it has links to Douglas Latchford, and that its provenance is incomplete, raising serious questions about whether it was looted before being sold via dealers into the art market.
“These works are the subject of a significant live investigation which is nearing its conclusion,” a spokesperson for the gallery said.
The Pandora papers, a collection of millions of documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have again focused world attention on Latchford.
The papers have revealed new details of how he used offshore trusts to pass his assets, including his collection of Khmer artefacts, to his daughter and avoid them becoming liable to UK inheritance tax.
The Skanda Trust was set up in 2011 and the Siva Trust in 2012 in Jersey, and Julia Latchford was among the beneficiaries.
Julia Latchford, 50, said she was not personally subject to any investigation, and had not been involved in the sale of antiquities while they were part of the Skanda and Shiva trust structure. During the time that the “inheritance trust structure held the collection of Cambodian artefacts”, which she said ended in 2016, her father had given her “credible” assurance that the allegations against him were false, she said.
She said she was also reassured by Douglas Latchford’s associations with the Cambodian government and museums around the world but has subsequently become aware that “in general and in particular cases, he lied to me, and concealed certain actions from me”.
Julia Latchford acknowledged that authorities continue to investigate her father’s estate, which she inherited, for proceeds of crime but emphasised that her father had made substantial money independent of his antiquities trading and that not all of his antiquities dealing was alleged to have been illegal.
She said: “I am aware of and am voluntarily cooperating with the authorities on the investigations with respect to my father’s estate and any proceeds of crime and am committed to their resolution.”