The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is suspected to be home to no less than 33 antiquities that were stolen by a single smuggler, according to Cambodian officials.
Toek Tik, a reformed looter admitted to police that he took 33 masterpieces from Cambodia.
He disclosed to authorities that many of those pieces were handled by Douglas Latchford, a renowned Southeast Asian antiquities dealer, who was later exposed as a large-scale art smuggler and who had stolen artwork from the region.
Investigations into the Pandora Papers, a significant leak of offshore financial transactions by The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, are largely responsible for the revelation of the extent of Latchford’s smuggling operation (ICIJ).
Martin Lerner, who throughout his 31-year stint at the Met supervised the museum’s Southeast Asian collection efforts, was one of the main curators in the field while Latchford, who dubbed himself a scholar of Southeast Asian antiquities, produced several books on the subject. He served as a consultant for the dealer after leaving the Met.
When a pair of stolen statues Latchford had acquired were put up for sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2012, authorities started to question his business operations. Latchford was accused by the American government of dealing with stolen artifacts in November 2019. His daughter returned his collection when he passed away the following August at the age of 88.
“Knowing what I know now, I should probably not have worked so closely with Mr. Latchford,” Lerner told The Times.
Met Acquired Items through Donations or Outright Purchases
Since 1983, the Met has acquired at least 13 Latchford items through donations or outright purchases. However, a Cambodian investigation into the provenance of 45 pieces at the museum started in October.
Toek Tik allegedly recalled taking these artifacts from locations throughout the Cambodian bush.
Interviews with other members of the smuggling ring, on-the-ground evidence at historical sites, and Latchford’s records all help to confirm Toek Tik’s allegations in some cases. For instance, Toek Tik remembered several number of items that are all comparable to one specific piece at the Met.
“The Met is closely following the developments, and we are in active dialogue with Cambodia,” a museum spokesperson told Artnet News. “We have shared our provenance with Cambodia’s representative; and we have requested that Cambodia share any new, relevant information it has recently obtained.”
Looted Cambodian Artifacts Also Found at Denver Art Museum
In part thanks to Toek Tik’s proof, the Denver Art Museum agreed to the return of four Latchford-related Cambodian artifacts in October. James H. Clark, the developer of Netscape, also turned over 35 Southeast Asian artifacts to the US Department of Homeland Security in January after purchasing them from a trader.
Cambodia is attempting to recover other items from the Met collection and is hoping that the American Justice Department would help. In 2013, the museum returned to Cambodia a pair of “Kneeling Attendants” from the stolen Koh Ker temple complex that Latchford had donated in part.