Cambodians celebrate the return of centuries-old artifacts illegally smuggled out of the country

Centuries-old cultural objects illegally smuggled out of Cambodia were welcomed at a celebration on Friday led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who thanked them for their return and called for further efforts to recover such stolen treasures.

Many, if not all, of the items on display at government offices on Friday had been looted from Cambodia during times of war and instability, including during the 1970s when the country was under the brutal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge. Through unscrupulous art dealers, they ended up in 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 souls of generations of Khmer ancestors”.


The statement credited the return of the items to the “tremendous cooperation and support” from public and private institutions, national and international experts, and close ties with other countries through bilateral, multilateral and international institutions, including UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency .

It also highlighted the cooperation between the Cambodian and US governments. Many of the items returned so far are from the United States.

Dancers perform during a ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 17, 2023. Artifacts illegally smuggled out of Cambodia were welcomed home at a celebration led by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday. (Kok Ky/Cambodia’s Government Cabinet via AP)

Items returned included important Hindu and Buddhist statues, as well as ancient jewelry from the once powerful Angkor Empire.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has indicated he intends to step down once a new government is in place

In February, a spectacular jewelry collection from the estate of antiques collector and dealer Douglas Latchford, who was accused of buying and selling looted artifacts, was returned to Cambodia. Among the 77 pieces of jewelry were crowns, necklaces, bracelets, belts, earrings and amulets. US prosecutors charged him in 2019 with alleged trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiques. Latchford, who died in 2020, had denied any involvement in the smuggling.

Speaking to an invited audience that included US Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy, Hun Sen said some Cambodian sculptures are still missing and kept abroad, and he asked for their return in a spirit of goodwill. He said his government is determined to use all means at its disposal to secure these stolen artifacts, including negotiations and legal action.


“The United States joins the Cambodians in celebrating the return of looted artifacts to their rightful homes in the Kingdom,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

“(Asterisk) For the past 20 years, the United States has worked with local partners, American academic institutions and nonprofit organizations to protect, preserve and honor Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage,” it said. “Through a longstanding US-Cambodia cultural property treaty, the United States has facilitated the return of over 100 priceless antiquities.”

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