Duryodhana Statue Smuggler Charged With Trafficking Artifacts

A sandstone Duryodhana statue smuggler Douglas Latchford, a dealer in and collector of Southeast Asian antiquities who falsified documents to make looted treasures easier to sell on the art market has been charged with trafficking artifacts.

Duryodhana Statue smuggler charged with trafficking artifacts
Duryodhana Statue smuggler charged with trafficking artifacts

Investigators have charged Douglas A. J. Latchford, a leading expert on Khmer antiquities, with smuggling looted Cambodian relics and helping to sell them on the international art market by concealing their tainted histories with falsified documentation.

Douglas Latchford Duryodhana Statue Smuggler
Credit…Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a federal indictment, Mr. Latchford, 88, was accused of having served for decades as a “conduit” for Cambodian antiquities that had been excavated illegally from ancient jungle temples during unrest in the country starting in the mid-1960s, with the beginnings of the Cambodian civil war.

According to a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Mr. Latchford, a dual citizen of Thailand and the United Kingdom, falsified invoices and shipping documents to make it easier to sell those looted artifacts to major auction houses, dealers and museums.

The prosecutors presented in its court papers a sordid and alternative perspective on Mr. Latchford, who had been hailed in Cambodia as a protector of the country’s relics, having donated rare artifacts and money to the national museum in Phnom Penh. In 2008, he was honored with the country’s equivalent of a knighthood. He is also the co-author of three books — “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes” — that are foundational reference works for experts.

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The United States government officials depicted him instead as a major player in a transnational criminal network dealing in cultural property who started supplying Western institutions and private collectors with looted antiquities as long ago as the 1970s.

The indictment charges Mr. Latchford with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and smuggling, among other charges, the most serious of which each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office, Nicholas Biase, declined to comment on whether an extradition request for Mr. Latchford would be made.

Sandstone Duryodhana statue smuggled by Douglas Latchford
Credit…U.S. Attorney’s Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

They detailed in their news release his involvement with high-profile cases such as that of a major antiquity that was withdrawn from an auction at Sotheby’s in 2011 when a Cambodian official complained that the object had been looted. The artifact, a 500-pound, 10th-century sandstone statue of a mythic warrior, Duryodhana, is thought to have been looted from a temple in a Cambodian jungle. Prosecutors said that Mr. Latchford exported the stone figure from Cambodia in 1972, but when Sotheby’s was seeking to verify the provenance of the artifact, Mr. Latchford told the auction house that he had the statue in London in 1970 — then changed his story to claim that he had never owned it at all.

Sotheby’s and its consignor agreed to return the Duryodhana to Cambodia after a court battle in which the United States government sided with Cambodia.

In 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also agreed to return two statues from the same site after Cambodian officials presented evidence that they had been smuggled out of the country during the tumult of civil war in the 1970s. The statues had arrived at the museum in four separate pieces — two heads and two torsos — in a series of gifts between 1987 and 1992. Mr. Latchford was the donor or part-donor for three of them.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a long history of involvement in the trafficking of Indian antiquities, temple idols and manuscripts and ironically recently Nita Ambani was elected to The Met board for promoting Indian culture.

For years Mr. Latchford has been a character at the margins of the government’s investigation of looting in Southeast Asia. In 2016, he was mentioned in a federal criminal complaint as an unindicted co-conspirator who had helped a prominent New York gallery owner falsify documents associated with Cambodian artifacts so that they would be easier to sell on the international art market. But this is the first time that he has been formally charged.

Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said Mr. Latchford had “built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archaeological sites.”

Tess Davis, an expert on Cambodian antiquities law, said “the name Douglas Latchford casts a long shadow” over the fate of Khmer treasures that have been smuggled and sold abroad since the Vietnam War era.

“As we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria, a generation ago in Cambodia, brutal civil war led to the wholesale plunder of a great ancient civilization,” Ms. Davis said.

Prosecutors describe Mr. Latchford as having provided invoices that misrepresented identifying details of artifacts, such as age or country of origin, to United States Customs and Border Protection in order to hide the fact that they were looted.

“Frequently, Mr. Latchford listed the ‘country of origin’ as ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Laos,’ rather than Cambodia,” the news release said, “and often described the objects as ‘figures’ from the 17th or 18th century” rather than dating to the Khmer Empire, which ended in the 15th century.

At the root of the problem are London based Auction Houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s setup by the Intelligence Officers of the East India Company who looted the Indian artefacts, temple idols, manuscripts etc from the treasury after the sacking of Indian Kingdoms. These world famous auction housed were founded on the loot of British officers.

Warehouses of these British officers in Britain, now under the care of their grandchildren are full of looted Indian treasures. Few of the items looted by Robert Clive from Tirumala Tirupati temples were very recently in 2004 auctioned at Christie’s in London by his grandchildren who were short of money. The auction fetched them £4 million. Still they have warehouses full of same Indian treasure. This is just one such case of a mere clerk of the East India Company; what about other high-ranking officers?

What is noteworthy is that these auction houses are still involved in the smuggling of Indian antiques, temple idols, manuscripts etc, and recently also involved in the case of diamond jeweler Nirav Modi as exposed by GreatGameIndia in the report Nirav Modi and the Smuggling of National Treasure. The issue of smuggling by these British auction houses was also recently raised by the Head Priest of Tirumala temple based on our research report The Smuggling Syndicate of Tirumala Tirupati Temples.

Indian government did create an Idol Wing to crackdown on these Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Goods including Antiques and works of Art but sadly the seized artefacts including temple idols were recently found to be left to rot in a parking lot in Chennai, in once such case. To combat these transnational organised smuggling rings India needs a comprehensive effort as is being employed by other nations – the victims of the colonial British Empire’s legacy, as is being suggested in our earlier reports above.

Colonial smuggling networks are the hotspots of terrorism today. This should be of utmost concern to our security establishment, since the antiques smuggled out of India directly funds terrorist activities. As an example, with the gains from selling one Buddha sculpture (stolen from Mathura and illicitly sold for $1 million), terrorists could literally fund a dozen Paris-style attacks. To put that in an extrapolated perspective, that’s 1,500 lives that could be lost by smuggling out just one piece of Indian heritage.

If you wish to have a historical perspective of the destruction of Indian Knowledge Bases and how it was smuggled out of India and the geopolitical players involved, check out our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance.

The New York Times with comments from GreatGameIndia, a journal on Geopolitics and International Relations. Get to know the Geopolitical threats India is facing in our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance

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