NEW YORK — Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States said Monday that the transfer of 30 antiquities by U.S. law enforcement authorities to his country was a return of the “souls of our culture.”
Ambassador Keo Chhea spoke at a ceremony where a 10th-century sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” was among several works of art displayed as U.S. and Cambodian officials described the impact the return of 30 antiquities would have on the Southeast Asian nation.
“It’s like a returning of the souls of our culture back to our people,” Chhea said. “We’re very grateful.”
Chhea praised the cooperation between the U.S. and Cambodia to enable the return of the antiquities, but he also said they were battling a “global problem” that continues.
He added that “we need to commit and to continue our fight” to prevent further looting and stop the plundering of precious works of art by tools used by looters, which sometimes results in pieces of sculptures being chopped off.
Some sculptures, including one from the 10th century depicting the Hindu elephant god Ganesha that weighs more than 3 tons, were too heavy to be brought to the ceremony, according to U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
The sculptures were looted during a long period of civil war and instability in Cambodia, which was ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
Williams said organized looting networks — including looters affiliated with the Khmer Rouge — sent the statues to Douglas Latchford, a well-known antiquities dealer, who then sold them to Western dealers, collectors and institutions.
Latchford died before he could be extradited to the United States to face charges of wire fraud conspiracy and other crimes in Manhattan federal court, the prosecutor noted. The indictment eventually was dismissed due to his death.
Williams said some of the sandstone and bronze sculptures and artifacts were given up by their owners when U.S. authorities told them they were stolen. Others were claimed through court actions. They ranged from the Bronze Age to the 12th century.
“We commend individuals and institutions who decided to do the right thing, and after learning about the origin of the antiquities in their possession, decided to voluntarily return those pieces to their homeland,” Williams said. “We want to encourage anyone out there, who believes that they have illegally obtained Cambodian or other antiquities in their possession, to come forward.”