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Australia Will Return Looted Sculptures to Cambodia

An ancient gilt bronze Buddhist sculpture that traveled a circuitous and legally questionable route from a rice paddy in southern Cambodia to the capital of Australia will soon be headed back to its homeland.

The sculpture of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani — the benevolent “lord who looks on from above” and “lotus bearer” — dates to the ninth or 10th century. Over about 15 years, it traveled from a rural area near the Vietnamese border to the hands of Douglas A.J. Latchford, a notorious trafficker of Asian antiquities. In 2011, he in turn sold it and two smaller accompanying statues to the National Gallery of Australia, where they have resided ever since.

Now, after an extensive investigation into the work’s provenance, the gallery will return the sculptures in no more than three years to Cambodia, giving the government time to prepare an appropriate place for them in Phnom Penh, the capital.

At a ceremony last week in Canberra, Australia’s capital, Susan Templeman, a special envoy for the arts, described the handover in terms of reparations.

“It is an opportunity to put right a historical wrong,” she said, “but also to strengthen our ties and deepen our understanding.”

Museums in wealthy nations around the world are confronting the complicated legacy of many of their most-cherished items — some the spoils of war or empire; others simply stolen. At the same time, the clarion call from the items’ countries of origin to return those ill-gotten treasures is growing harder to ignore.

Cambodia, where treasures from the Khmer and other cultures were looted during decades of war and genocide, has launched a global effort to claw back symbols of its fabled heritage as it challenges the museums and collectors who have long defended their acquisitions as fully documented and unquestionably lawful.

In 2014, the National Gallery of Australia ordered an independent audit into the provenance of about 5,000 Asian artworks. In 2021, it repatriated 17 works of Indian art connected to the convicted smuggler Subhash Kapoor, as well as the discredited dealer William Wolff.

Suspicion about the Cambodian works has swirled since at least 2016, when the work was taken off display and an investigation began.

The works had been purchased as a set for $1.5 million from the private collection of Mr. Latchford, a British antiquities dealer who died in 2020.

For the museum, it was something of a triumph: The annual report from that year described the three sculptures, made by the Cham people of Vietnam — who lived in what is now Cambodia — as “perhaps the most extraordinary work acquired this year,” bringing “focus and prestige” to the museum’s collection.

But in the years that followed, Mr. Latchford, once heralded as an expert in Cambodian antiquities, including within Cambodia, became widely discredited. At the time of his death, he faced charges of wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy.

In June, his daughter Nawapan Kriangsa agreed to forfeit $12 million from his estate, according to federal officials, as part of a settlement of a civil case that accused her father of profiting from the sale of stolen Cambodian artifacts.

In recent years, the provenance of works connected to him, many of which were shrouded in secrecy, have been tainted.

Mr. Latchford is believed to have worked with looters like Toek Tik, who went by Lion. Once a teenage foot soldier for the Khmer Rouge, he found more lucrative employment selling stolen ancient statues. He spent the last two years of his life, before his death from cancer in 2021, helping the Cambodian government identify and recover looted artifacts.

Lion was one of two looters who first took the three Cham bronze works from what is today a rice field in 1994, according to an interview with the other looter by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“I was around 35 years old when I was asked to dig,” the man, who goes by The Falcon, told the broadcaster. “I was very poor. Our country was still at war.” He was paid about $15 for his contributions, he said.

In an interview with The Times in 2012, Mr. Latchford defended his long career in the tangled world of antiquities collecting. “If the French and other Western collectors had not preserved this art,” he said, “what would be the understanding of Khmer culture today?”

A believer in reincarnation, he said he had once been told by two Buddhist priests that “in a previous life I had been Khmer, and that what I collect had once belonged to me.”

At the handover ceremony in Canberra last week, Kong Vireak, a representative from the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, described the restitution of the sculptures as a way for a nation traumatized by war to heal.

“The return is a miracle,” he said, “and sets an example for the world.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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