SYDNEY - Australia’s national gallery will return three 9th and 10th Century bronze sculptures to Cambodia, after they were found to be stolen. It follows a decade-long investigation carried out by the two countries to determine the origin of the works. Cambodia’s government welcomed the historic move as “an important step towards rectifying past injustices”. It comes amid a global push to return looted cultural goods. The three artworks originally came from the Champa Kingdom that once inhabited Vietnam and parts of Cambodia. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) says it purchased the sculptures in 2011 for A$2.3m (£1.18m; $1.5m) from British artefacts smuggler Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020. Mr Latchford has been implicated in the illegal trade of antiquities since 2016 according to the NGA, with charges laid against him in 2019 relating to the alleged trafficking of stolen and looted Cambodian artefacts. According to the ABC, the three statues were dug up in a field in Tboung Khmum in the east of Cambodia in 1994 before being smuggled to international art dealers across the border in Thailand and ending up in Mr Latchford’s collection.
Mr Latchford’s daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, worked alongside researchers from the NGA and Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to help return the goods. The works will remain on display at the NGA in Canberra for three years while Cambodia prepares a new home for them in Phnom Penh.
“It is an opportunity to put right a historical wrong but also to strengthen our ties and deepen our understanding,” Australia’s Special Envoy for the Arts Susan Templeman said at a handover ceremony on Friday. Cambodia has continued to call on international governments to recover thousands of antiquities it says were stolen from its ancient temples - including several it says are housed in the Victoria and Albert and British Museums. It is the second time the NGA has removed stolen art from its collection in recent years.
In 2021, the gallery returned a series of artefacts to India - some dating back to the 11th Century - which were linked to the alleged antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor and the late New York art dealer William Wolff. Globally, efforts continue to repatriate culturally significant antiquities to their original owners.
In March, it was announced that four Aboriginal spears taken by British explorer Captain James Cook and his landing party when they first arrived in Australia in 1770 would be returned to their traditional owners. The spears had been housed at Cambridge University, and their return is the result of a 20-year campaign by First Nations communities.