In October 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York announced its collaboration with U.S. investigators from the U.S. Attorney’s office to determine if the artifacts in the museum were stolen from Cambodia.
While it is unclear what exactly promoted the Met officials to contact the Attorney’s office, however, the Washington Post and the Investigation Consortium of Investigations Journalists recently reported that “the Met holds 12 pieces once owned or brokered by Douglas Latchford,” an art dealer and alleged in long-time art trafficker in looted artifacts. Additional pieces came to the museum through his colleagues. In 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York indicted Latchford on several charges, including “conspiracy and related charges pertaining to his trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities.”
The Met, Cambodia, and the Looted artifacts
According to the Met’s press release statement, they are willing to reach out to the U.S. attorney’s office in regards to the pieces and stated that they are “happy to cooperate with any inquiry.”
The statement also reflected that “The Met has a long and well-documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate, being transparent about the provenance of works in the collection, and supporting further research and scholarship by sharing all known ownership history,” in a press statement published on Sunday.
Previously, in 2013, the Met returned to Cambodian pieces and reportedly have researched the other pieces to see if they have been illegally looted. However, some argue that most museums are hesitant to thoroughly investigate Cambodian pieces, as there is a fear that they might be stolen.
According to Cambodian officials, the Met obtained the artifacts between 1977 and 2003. Cambodian officials expressed a strong desire to reobtain their artifacts. The culture minister said that it was disappointing and surprising to see that “many statutes of ours are in the Met.” Through research and investigation, the Cambodian officials created a spreadsheet with 45 alleged looted artifacts that now sit at the Met and Cambodian officials are questioning additional 100 or so other artifacts.
Cambodia now has a team of experts, archeologists, and investigators diggining into looted artifacts and excavating sites. A reformed former art dealer that was part of Latchford’s clan is now assisting officials with locating artifacts in historic grounds.
While the Met is working to cooperate with authorities, they have not made an effort to reach out to authorities in Cambodia, according to Bradly Gordon, the Attorney representing Cambodia. Gordon reported to the Washington Post and said, “the amazing thing is that these museums say they’re researching [the relics’ origins], but they have not contacted us,” and continued, saying, “How can they say they’re researching when they aren’t calling the country of origin?”
Critics argue that the Met has not taken enough initiative to thoroughly research the pieces and return those pieces stolen from the origin country.
The Met’s recent efforts and initiative to return Cambodian looted artifacts is a set in the right direction; however, as critics suggest, the museum needs to take more action to research all artifacts the suspect are stolen –not just from Cambodia but other countries as well. Other countries deserve the opportunity to benefit from their cultural property through research on their pieces and learn new details about their past. It appears that the problems with the Met are symptomatic of the problem of art museums not doing enough vetting of the pieces they collect, even after there are reports about potential looting of items.