In a significant move towards ethical art stewardship, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has announced its decision to return 14 sculptures to Cambodia and two to Thailand. These artifacts were linked to the notorious art dealer, Douglas Latchford, who faced charges of trafficking looted antiquities in 2019. The repatriation underscores the museum's commitment to rectifying historical wrongs and aligning its practices with ethical standards in the art world.
The sculptures in question were associated with Douglas Latchford, a dealer indicted by the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York for smuggling looted artifacts from Southeast Asia. Latchford supplied major auction houses, art dealers, and museums with looted antiquities, falsifying documentation about their origins. His demise in 2020 marked the conclusion of a controversial chapter in the art world. The Met's decision to return these sculptures represents a conscientious effort to address the consequences of dealing in looted art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in collaboration with Cambodia and the U.S. Attorney's Office, has been diligently working for years to resolve questions surrounding the provenance of these artworks. Max Hollein, the Met's director and chief executive officer, emphasized the collaborative nature of the efforts, stating that new information arising from this process prompted the decision to initiate the return of the sculptures. This cooperative approach reflects a commitment to transparency and ethical responsibility in the art community.
The sculptures being repatriated date back to the 9th to 14th centuries during the Angkorian period, showcasing influences of Hindu and Buddhist religious themes. The artworks hold cultural and historical significance, representing Cambodia's rich heritage. The repatriation aligns with international efforts to safeguard cultural artifacts and acknowledges the importance of returning such items to their countries of origin.
During Cambodia's extended period of civil unrest from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, important archaeological sites from the ancient Khmer empire were targeted by looters. Organized looting networks and smuggling processes, orchestrated by figures like Douglas Latchford, facilitated the entry of these artifacts into the international art market. The U.S. Attorney's office, in its indictment, highlighted the role Latchford played in obtaining art through illicit means.
Museum's Commitment to Cultural Property:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's decision to repatriate these sculptures follows its pledge to review the works in its collection with a focus on cultural property and past collecting practices. This commitment signifies a broader acknowledgment within the art world of the need to rectify historical injustices and promote ethical practices in the acquisition and display of cultural artifacts.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's announcement to return sculptures associated with Douglas Latchford is a commendable step towards rectifying the consequences of trafficking looted antiquities. The decision reflects the museum's commitment to transparency, ethical stewardship, and collaboration with affected countries. As the art world continues to grapple with issues of provenance and cultural property, such initiatives set a precedent for responsible art management and contribute to the broader discourse on ethical practices in the acquisition and display of cultural heritage.