PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Centuries-old cultural artifacts that had been illegally smuggled out from Cambodia were welcomed home Friday at a celebration led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who offered thanks for their return and appealed for further efforts to retrieve such stolen treasures.
Many, if not all, of the items displayed at the government’s offices Friday had been looted from Cambodia during periods of war and instability, including in the 1970s when the country was under the brutal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge. Through unscrupulous art dealers, they made their way into the hands of private collectors and museums around the world.
A statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts described the returned artifacts as embodying the “priceless cultural heritage and the souls of generations of Khmer ancestors.”
The statement credited the items’ return to “tremendous cooperation and support” from public and private institutions, national and international experts, and close relations with other countries through bilateral, multi-lateral and international institutions, including UNESCO.
It also singled out cooperation between the Cambodian and U.S. governments. Many of the items returned so far have come from the United States.
The returned items included important Hindu and Buddhist statues, as well as ancient jewelry from the once-mighty empire of Angkor.
In February, a spectacular collection of jewelry was returned to Cambodia from the estate of antiquities collector and dealer Douglas Latchford, who was accused of buying and selling looted artifacts. The 77 pieces of jewelry included crowns, necklaces, bracelets, belts, earrings and amulets. U.S. prosecutors indicted him in 2019 on charges related to alleged trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities. Latchford, who died in 2020, had denied any involvement in smuggling.
In remarks to an invited audience that included U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy, Hun Sen said that some Cambodian sculptures are still missing and held in foreign countries, and he appealed for their return in the spirit of goodwill. He said his government is determined to use all means at its disposal to secure those stolen artifacts, including negotiations and legal action.
“The United States joins Cambodians in celebrating the return of looted artifacts back to their rightful home in the Kingdom,” said a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
"For 20 years the United States has worked to protect, preserve, and honor Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage with local partners, American academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations," it said. “Through a long-standing U.S.-Cambodia cultural property agreement, the United States has facilitated the return of over 100 priceless antiquities."
Sopheng Cheang, The Associated Press