February 26, 2024

Nawapan Kriangsak found out as a young girl that walking was forbidden in her father’s home. Her father, Douglas AJ Latchford, was perhaps the world’s leading collector of Cambodian antiques. In every corner of his Bangkok apartment was a statue of a Khmer deity too valuable to take the risk of a horse game.

When she went to bed as a child, Ms. Kriangsak said in an interview that the brooding stone faces haunted her. “Papa”, she would tell him, “they go at night.”

Last summer, when her father died at the age of 88, they all belonged to her – 125 works that make up what is believed to be the largest private collection of artifacts from the 1,000-year-old Khmer dynasty in Cambodia.

But Ms. Kriangsak also inherited a troubling legacy.

Not only was Mr. Latchford a recognized scholar of ancient Khmer, he was also someone who has been accused of trading in looted artifacts for decades.

Ms. Kriangsak said the collection, dazzling and unique and valued at more than $ 50 million by some, was a tremendous burden to curate and maintain. In a gesture that Cambodian officials find extremely generous, she decided to return all of her father’s Khmer objects to that country, where they can be studied by Khmer scholars and displayed in a new museum in Phnom Penh.

It’s an amazing twist for the Cambodians who saw so many of their country’s ancient artifacts disappear during the Pol Pot reign and the surrounding years of the Civil War. Officials say the objects have been revered for generations and have never been perceived as a source of wealth or profit.

“Happiness is not enough to sum up my feelings,” said Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona. “It’s a magical feeling to know that you are coming back.”

“These are not just rocks and mud and metal,” she added. “They are the blood and sweat and earth of our nation that have been torn away. It’s like we lost someone to the war and never thought they’d come home and we suddenly see them show up at our door. “

Ms. Kriangsak, 49, a lawyer, prefers not to discuss the allegations made against her father, but it is clear that she views his collecting as an act of worship rather than greed.

“Despite what people say or accuse of Douglas, my father started his collection in a very different time and his world has changed,” she said. “I have to see the world from my family’s perspective today. I want everything Douglas has put together to be kept where people around the world can enjoy and understand it. There is no better place than Cambodia, where people revere these objects not only for their art or history, but also for their religious significance. “

To date, 25 major 10th century works have been shipped from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, where many stood bathed in the sunlight that filled Mr. Latchford’s spacious apartment complex. Around 100 more objects will be sent to Cambodia in the coming months from both Bangkok and Mr. Latchford’s second home in London.

Attorneys for Ms. Kriangsak and the Cambodian government estimate the collection to be worth more than $ 50 million when sold individually. Many of the objects are unique, and there are also jewels and gold crowns that have been used to adorn the sculptures in their sacred niches.

For decades, Mr. Latchford was widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on Khmer antiquities. Three books that he wrote together about his holdings (and those of other private collectors) remain core reference works. And he made no secret of his collection; The objects are lovingly photographed in his books – “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art” (2003); “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods” (2008); and “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past” (2011).

The Cambodian government never accused him of illegal property, and in fact showered him with honors every time he donated an item, as it has done several times over the years. In 2008 he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Monisaraphon, which corresponds to a knighthood, for “his unique contribution to science and understanding of Khmer culture”.

Cambodian officials said the newly donated items would be kept in the museum as “The Latchford Collection”.

Mr. Latchford also gave gifts to many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which returned two massive items known as “kneeling companions” to Cambodia in 2012 after they were found to have been looted. Mr Latchford had donated parts of the broken statues to the museum, although he was never accused of wrongdoing.

But such events helped to reinforce concern that Mr. Latchford’s collection methods were in doubt during the years of the Civil War in Cambodia (circa 1965-1979). In 2019, the New York federal prosecutor accused him of trafficking in looted Cambodian relics and forging documents, saying he had “built a career out of smuggling and illegally selling priceless Cambodian antiques, often directly from archaeological sites.”

Mr. Latchford long denied such allegations, often insisting that he was the savior of treasure that would otherwise have been destroyed or melted in the jungle.

“Granted, these things were illuminated in the moonlight from Cambodia and handled elsewhere,” Latchford said in a 2013 interview. “But if it hadn’t been for them, they would probably have been shot by the Khmer Rouge for target training.”

Federal law enforcement efforts against Mr Latchford, who was never extradited, ended with his death last August. At the time, his daughter said in an interview, the family had already spent two years working out a plan to repatriate the artifacts en masse. According to two advisors who helped negotiate the return to Cambodia, Mr. Bradley J. Gordon, attorney at Edenbridge Asia in Cambodia, and Charles Webb of Hanuman Partners in London were initially very reluctant to return what he saw heirlooms. But Mrs. Kriangsak stayed.

“When I started this conversation almost three years ago, I couldn’t predict how complex it was going to get,” she said, adding, “Maybe my Buddhist background made me look at things a little differently. And it wasn’t easy. But in the end I felt, “Why should it be just part of the collection when it should be something really stunning – the entire collection.”

All parties agree on one point. They hope that Ms. Kriangsak’s decision will inspire other private collectors and perhaps large museums to return Khmer treasures that really belong to her homeland.

“When we started this effort three years ago, there was little hope that it would really come back,” said Ms. Sackona. “But we have reached out to the spirits of our ancestors and prayed to them for help.” She praised Ms. Kriangsak, whom she called “precious and selfless and beautiful”.

“This is a model that we hope will be followed by many collectors and museums around the world,” said Ms. Sackona.

“It is a message,” she continued, “that the statues on our floor should be at home – not in a private living room, but here in Cambodia, where visitors from all over the world can see them.”

MS. Kriangsak repeated this feeling.

“It is far better,” she said, “that you are in a place where people all over the world can see and enjoy these things.”