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Metropolitan Museum of Art returning Cambodian antiquities tied to "illicit trafficking"

Looting of Cambodia | Sunday on 60 Minutes
Looting of Cambodia | Sunday on 60 Minutes 00:36

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City agreed to return 13 antiquities tied to "illicit trafficking" to Cambodia, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Friday. 

The pieces are tied to Douglas Latchford, an antiquities dealer who was indicted in 2019 for smuggling, conspiracy and wire fraud, among other charges, before his death. Latchford donated and sold sculptures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other prestigious institutions.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art has not only recognized the significance of these 13 Khmer artifacts, which were shamelessly stolen, but has also volunteered to return them, as part of their ongoing cooperation, to their rightful owners: the People of Cambodia," Homeland Security Investigations Acting Special Agent in Charge Erin Keegan said.

Statues from Cambodia's Koh Ker archaeological site, including a 10th century goddess sandstone statute, are among those being returned. Other statutes being returned, including an over-life-size head of Buddha, date from as far back as the 7th century.

In addition to the 13 pieces being returned as part of the agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, the museum is returning one other piece to Cambodia and two to Thailand, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said in a press release. 

"The Met has been diligently working with Cambodia and the U.S. Attorney's Office for years to resolve questions regarding these works of art, and new information that arose from this process made it clear that we should initiate the return of this group of sculptures," Max Hollein, the Museum's director and CEO, said.

Nearly all of Cambodia's 4,000 temples have been looted. The theft of Cambodia's cultural treasures from religious sites across the country started a century ago when the country was colonized by France. The looting became a global business in the 1970s, '80s and '90s amidst genocide, civil war and political turmoil.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention requires member states to prevent the illegal import or export of cultural property. It also requires countries to take appropriate steps to recover and return cultural property at the request of the country of origin.

Latchford popped up on the radar of U.S. law enforcement in 2011 after a 500-pound sandstone warrior from Koh Ker appeared in a Sotheby's auction catalog. A team from the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York went to Cambodia to investigate the provenance of the statue and investigators were able to trace its original sale back to Latchford.

The indictment against Latchford was dropped after his death.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art previously returned two statues called the Kneeling Attendants, which had been donated to the museum by Latchford. In May, the museum announced it would create a research team to examine the provenance, or acquisition history, of all its collections.

Anderson Cooper's full report, "The Looting of Cambodia," is set to broadcast on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

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