Cambodia says lost artifacts found in Gallery 249 at the Met

Cambodia says lost artifacts found in Gallery 249 at the Met

Antiquities on display in Gallery 249 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, on July 29, 2022. (Photo: New York Times)
Antiquities on display in Gallery 249 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, on July 29, 2022. (Photo: New York Times)

In the 1970s, long after its encyclopaedic collection had been acknowledged as among the world’s finest, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recognised it had slender holdings in South or Southeast Asian art. One in-house estimate suggested that no more than 60 objects were worth exhibiting.

But over the next two decades, it built a world-class collection, acquiring hundreds of artifacts for new galleries that now occupy the equivalent of more than a city block. The massive undertaking brought the glories of ancient Cambodia and India, Thailand and Vietnam to New York, where they took pride of place alongside the Western masterpieces that had long defined the museum.

Significant to this effort was Douglas AJ Latchford, a British-Thai businessman who had become a leading collector, scholar and dealer in Khmer art — and would later be indicted as an illegal trafficker of Cambodian artifacts.

Starting in 1983, Latchford gave or sold the museum 13 artifacts — a modest amount, but one that included premiere examples of Khmer sculpture. Two gifts were the torsos of massive, twin stone statues, the Kneeling Attendants, that guarded the doorway to Gallery 249, which focused on Khmer art. The wall label noted that they had been given “in honour of Martin Lerner,” the curator of South and Southeast Asian art who directed the Met’s collecting effort.

An undated photo found on Latchford’s computer by Cambodian officials and provided by the Cambodian Government shows British-Thai businessman and collector Douglas Latchford, left, and curator Martin Lerner. (Photo: New York Times)

Cambodian officials now say they believe many of those 13 items were stolen. They suspect dozens of other artifacts in that gallery and others were also looted, often trafficked by Latchford, who died in 2020. They say they believe he often sold stolen items to other donors and dealers before they ended up at the museum.

The Cambodians have enlisted the help of the United States Justice Department to press for the return of dozens of artworks, basing their claim in part on the account of a reformed looter. The looter, Toek Tik, identified 33 artifacts in the Met collection as objects he recalled personally plundering and selling to intermediaries who often did business with Latchford.

But the dispute has evolved into something of an odd standoff.

The Met says it has a track record of returning items proven to have been looted, that for years it has been reviewing its Khmer artifacts and that it has updated several provenances as a result and turned that information over to Cambodian officials. But the Met has refused to show Cambodia a set of internal documents that might buttress, or undermine, the museum’s proper title to the objects, whose slim ownership histories are listed on the Met website.

Cambodian officials, meanwhile, have turned evidence of looting over to federal authorities but not to the museum itself.

“We have not been provided Toek Tik’s accounts,” the Met said in a statement, “nor do we know the identity of the 33 items. We have repeatedly requested any evidence demonstrating works were stolen from Cambodia.”

Bradley Gordon, a lawyer for Cambodia’s government, responded, “The burden of proof should be on the Met to prove the Met has the right to legally own Cambodia’s national treasures.”

In pursuing a robust set of claims, Cambodian officials are relying heavily on the recollection of places and events from, in some cases, four decades ago, by Toek Tik, who died last year at age 62. His account was detailed, and the Cambodians say much of it has been corroborated by interviews with fellow thieves and by evidence found at the remote jungle temples sites that were plundered or among Latchford’s papers. But sometimes Toek Tik remembered finding several different objects, all of which he thought roughly resembled an item in the Met.

A photo provided by Thomas Cristofoletti shows reformed looter Toek Tik at Koh Ker, a looted temple complex in Preah Vihear, northern Cambodia, on Nov 2, 2021. (Photo: New York Times)

Cambodian officials say they have also discovered records that raise concerns about how thoroughly Met officials reviewed many of the items before acquiring them. In particular, they cite documents that show that soon after Lerner, the Met curator who led the collecting efforts, stepped down from his post in 2003 to become an art market consultant, his clients included Latchford.

The documents, found on Latchford’s computer after it was turned over to Cambodia by his daughter, show that Lerner used his expertise and reputation as a former Met expert to help Latchford market items for sale. In letters drawn up for Latchford clients, Lerner vouched for the value and significance of artifacts, in one case using language that closely tracked with what Latchford had asked him to write. They also owned at least one artifact together.

“We are eager to learn more about this relationship and how this fits into the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of the Metropolitan’s collection of Cambodian cultural properties,” Gordon said.

Lerner, one of the most respected experts in his field, said in an interview that his business relationship with Latchford did not start until after he had left the Met and that he had not known of any taint to the Latchford items he acquired for the museum or later vouched for as a consultant. But he acknowledged that, like other curators at the time, he did not do a lot to investigate where Latchford was securing his artifacts, a position he now regrets.

“Knowing what I know now, I should probably not have worked so closely with Mr Latchford,” he said.

Latchford was regarded as a collector and dealer, not a suspected trafficker, during the 31 years Lerner worked at the Met. In 2008, almost five years after Lerner left the museum, Latchford was honored by the Cambodian government in recognition of his donations to its museums. And the Met has no policy that forbids curators from later serving as private consultants.

But Lerner continued to work with Latchford for years after suspicions about the dealer’s conduct became public. In 2012, federal investigators said the dealer had knowingly purchased a looted antiquity. In 2013, the Kneeling Attendants that Latchford had given the Met in Lerner’s honour were found to have been stolen. Lerner was still advising Latchford in June 2019, six months before the dealer was charged with trafficking in looted relics and creating false provenance documents to hide his tracks. The case was withdrawn after the death of Latchford, who long denied any role in trafficking.

Lerner described his consulting work for Latchford, one client among many, as infrequent. Although he viewed Latchford as a friend, he said he became discriminating about what work he did with him after the allegations surfaced.

“If it were an object that was screaming, ‘This will create a major problem,’ then I would not do it,” he said.

The museum declined to address whether it had done an adequate job of researching the Cambodian items before acquiring them, but it said, “The norms of collecting have changed significantly, and the Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”

- Part of a larger recovery initiative -

The push to recover items from the Met is at the vanguard of an effort by Cambodia to secure the return of hundreds of artifacts it believes were looted during the years of civil war and upheaval that ravaged the country from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

The former temple looter, Toek Tik, told Cambodian researchers that he began stealing artifacts while a conscript in the army of the Khmer Rouge and later supervised multiple crews in the organised looting of his country’s heritage. Many items were brought to brokers who sold them to contacts in Thailand, especially one whom Toek Tik knew to be Latchford — or, as the brokers called him, “Sia Ford,” roughly meaning “Lord Ford.”

At the time, Latchford, who had a home in Bangkok, was an established collector and dealer who would go on to co-author three books on Khmer artifacts. Cambodian archaeologists later expressed amazement when reviewing the books, which contained images of artifacts that they had no idea existed. In 2012, the head of UNESCO Phnom Penh, Anne LeMaistre, called the books “the inventory of the missing patrimony of Cambodia.”

But Latchford’s major gifts to institutions like Cambodia’s National Museum largely stifled any disquiet.

The Met, during Lerner’s tenure, acquired scores of Cambodian or Khmer Empire artifacts, more than doubling its holdings.

Lerner said in an interview that he was tasked with expanding the collection of Cambodian artifacts and with fostering a wider appreciation of the culture that created them. He recalled, early in his tenure, meeting two college students from Cambodia as they toured the Asian galleries. They asked him, he said, “We see these things from all over the world, but what happened to our country?”

Vishakha N Desai, former president of the Asia Society and director of its museum, said Lerner had given South and Southeast Asian art prominence within the Met. “He has to be credited for that,” she said.

For Latchford, placing items in the Met was a marketing plum, an affiliation that cemented his standing as a dealer who handled artifacts of significance and value. He gave another statue in honour of Lerner in 1998, but it, like many of the items he was associated with, did not have a detailed provenance.

The Met listed only his name — no prior owner or sense of where it had been acquired.

For decades, the Met’s stated policy has been for curators to collect additional, available evidence to support the legitimacy and ownership history of artifacts before acquiring them. Cambodian officials requested an opportunity to review those internal records from the Met but were turned down.

“We have not asked the Met to take on any burdensome task,” Phoeurng Sackona, the minister of culture and fine arts for Cambodia, said in a statement; “rather we have only requested the precise information and research that the Met declares to the public and in its policies and procedures that it already has obtained on every cultural property from another country before accepting it into the museum.”

The Met said that it regards such documents as internal business records, not subject to disclosure “without a legal basis.”

- Museum practices were less rigorous -

Experts acknowledge that, decades ago, many museums, not just the Met, were less diligent in their acquisition reviews. Some curators felt that by taking in some objects, museums were rescuing Khmer culture from obscurity and possible destruction amid a civil war.

Lerner said in a 2000 article that, in some cases, the market for the artifacts allowed local farmers who dug them up to feed their families. In recent interviews, he said dealers like Latchford were often reluctant to disclose where they had acquired objects and that he didn’t push to know more.

“You were relying on the goodwill and integrity of the dealers themselves,” he said.

Gradually, provenance became more important, he said, and he expanded his research on objects before accepting them. But he said it was not a priority set by the museum, and he lacked the time and resources to investigate fully. Even if he learned the name of a previous owner, it was often hard to follow up.

“At the time, I did indeed do what was possible and what I was expected to do,” he said. “It was an incomplete system.

“Surely toward the end of my tenure at the Met,” he continued, “I could have done more.”

Cambodian officials say curators should have been particularly watchful about accepting antiquities during a time of civil war. Lerner himself recognised the issue in 1997 when he returned a Khmer-era sculpture from the museum after it appeared on an international listing of missing Cambodian art. “It is my hope,” he said at the time, “that this will serve as a precedent and an example for other sculptures to make their way back where they belong.”

- Ties that endured -

Lerner began working as a consultant and writing recommendation letters on artifacts for Latchford clients soon after leaving the Met in 2003. He was paid a few thousand dollars each, he said, and estimated that he wrote roughly a dozen of them over the years. A bank statement on Latchford’s computer showed the dealer also transferred $100,000 to Lerner in 2011, a sum Lerner first recalled as a personal loan but later described as a gallery’s payment for an item he had consigned that, for some reason, was channelled through Latchford.

Latchford’s reputation began to plummet the following year when he was cited in a federal prosecutor’s seizure notice to block the sale of an antiquity by Sotheby’s. The notice, which identified Latchford only as “The Collector,” said he had known the antiquity was looted before he bought it. Latchford said the paperwork federal officials relied on was mistaken and that he had never gone through with the purchase.

In 2013, the Met returned its Kneeling Attendants — the massive 10th-century statues that Latchford had donated in Lerner’s honour — after evidence surfaced that they were stolen.

The museum acknowledged then that it had few records on their origins, beyond the names of the donors. Lerner could not recall at the time what had been done to research their provenance. But he said that contacting the Cambodian government to inquire about them — as prescribed in rules laid down in 1971 by a former Met director, Thomas Hoving — had not been an option.

“Basically, there was no government to send it to at the time,” he said in an interview then. “It was all in a state of disarray at the time.”

Antiquities on display in Gallery 249 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, on July 27, 2022. (Photo: New York Times)

Still, some experts said the way the Attendants arrived at the museum —in four pieces: first, the heads, and then several years later, the two torsos — was inherently suspicious. “It is astonishing that clear-cut questions of provenance seemed to bother even renowned curators only minimally,” said Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, an expert on cultural heritage management at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany.

Lerner, nonetheless, continued to work with Latchford and saw him in Thailand the following year, according to documents on the dealer’s computer. In some emails from the computer, Latchford told Lerner what language he hoped the expert would use in letters for his clients. For example, in March 2016, he suggested Lerner begin a letter about a bronze statue of an enlightened Buddhist, or Maitreya, with the phrase, “I first saw this bronze Maitreya from N E Thailand (in around) 1968 when it, and others similar, were with Spink and Son London.”

Lerner’s letter began, “I recall seeing this bronze Standing Four-armed Maitreya (87 cm), some time around 1968, at Spink and Son, London.”

Lerner said he only used language in his evaluations that he judged to be accurate and only appraised objects he had seen in person or in photographs. Occasionally, he said, he declined Latchford’s request if he thought there was a problem.

Cambodian efforts to track looted artifacts expanded significantly when the reformed looter, Toek Tik, agreed two years ago to begin helping researchers identify items that he and his crews had a hand in stealing. He said he wanted to undo the damage he had caused over decades of taking objects that many in his country view as not simply aesthetically beautiful but imbued with the divine.

In the US, federal officials who regard his account as credible have cited his testimony in three separate cases where they have moved to seize items. Earlier this month, the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York announced the return of 30 looted artifacts that had been sold by Latchford to collectors and to the Denver Art Museum.

The Met declined to discuss its talks with the US attorney’s office but said in a statement, “We have been fully responsive and cooperative with the federal authorities.”

A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office declined to comment on any discussions with the Met.

Cambodian officials have begun talks with other museums, including the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, which they say have been more cooperative. But they view the Met negotiations as crucial, they said.

“The Met sets the standards for other museums,” said Gordon, the lawyer for the Cambodian government, “so it’s important that they are totally transparent.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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