Cambodian ambassador: looted artworks are 'souls' of culture


Some of the Cambodian antiquities recovered by the United States Attorney's Office are displayed during a news conference in New York on Aug 8. Officials were announcing the repatriation of 30 antiquities to Cambodia that had been illegally trafficked. Photo: AP

Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States said recently that the transfer of 30 antiquities by US 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 US and Cambodian officials described the impact the return of 30 antiquities would have on the South-East 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 US 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 three tonnes, were too heavy to be brought to the ceremony, according to US Attorney Damian Williams.

Surrounded by Cambodian antiquities, Cambodian ambassador to the United States Keo Chhea speaks during a news conference in New York on Aug 8. Photo: AP  Surrounded by Cambodian antiquities, Cambodian ambassador to the United States Keo Chhea speaks during a news conference in New York on Aug 8. Photo: AP

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 organised 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 artefacts were given up by their owners when US 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.” - AP

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