Cambodia Wants Its Stolen Treasures Back—and Will Fight in Court for Them | Opinion

Cambodia has been fighting for years to protect its cultural heritage and prevent priceless antiquities from being looted and spirited out of the country. This week some of that effort bore fruit when the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security officially returned to Cambodia 30 important artifacts they had seized in an asset forfeiture case.

The artifacts, some of which are more than 1,000 years old, have a market value of some $35 million, but the monetary value pales in comparison to their cultural and historical value to the Cambodian people.

These 30 artifacts were surrendered by the Denver Art Museum and one private collector, James H. Clark, the founder of Netscape. We know there are many more in museums and private collections in the United States and elsewhere.

Some light was cast on the extent and nature of the looting in Cambodia last October, when journalistic investigations based on revelations in the Pandora Papers revealed that the late Douglas Latchford, a well-regarded expert on Khmer and Buddhist antiquities, had been trafficking in looted treasures for years.

Like other countries with a long and rich cultural heritage, Cambodia is cooperating with law enforcement in the United States and other countries to repatriate antiquities stolen from our nation. When we receive credible information about stolen antiquities in the United States, we will file suit in federal court to get them back, with no compensation offered to the persons or institutions that hold them. We simply will not buy back goods that were stolen from us, no matter who holds them.

Thankfully, Latchford's daughter has promised to return more than 100 antiquities from her father's personal collection, but many more have been sold to collectors around the world. Some of those collectors may believe that their objects were acquired legitimately, but others surely know they were looted, or did not care.

Cambodia signed a cultural property agreement with the United States in 2003, an agreement that has been amended four times. It commits the United States to detain certain kinds of Cambodian antiquities arriving in customs until proper provenance can be determined. Importers are responsible for proving that the objects were not removed from the country in violation of Cambodian law. If they cannot, the items are returned to Cambodia.

A statue is examined at a ceremony
A statue is examined at a ceremony for the repatriation of 27 looted artifacts returned to Cambodia at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on July 13, 2022. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

In return, Cambodia has committed to the open exchange and loan of items of cultural interest to cultural organizations in the United States, including long-term loans. We are happy to do this because we want to encourage interest in our country and our culture, but we cannot countenance theft of our heritage. We are happy to share our cultural wealth, but ownership cannot be in dispute. These items belong to the people of Cambodia.

This agreement has helped stem the flow of looted objects into the United States, but it does not affect objects that are already in the country. It is to recover those items that we must file suit in federal court.

The damage from looting antiquities goes far beyond the theft itself. Looting of archaeological sites removes objects from their environment before the site can be studied and their context can be evaluated. Valuable insights into history are lost when amateurs dig crudely for objects to sell or hack from ancient structures. The crude digging and cutting disrupt the site and often damage objects irreparably, as evidenced by the number of sculptures with missing limbs, feet or hands. Sculptures that lie undisturbed and in perfect condition for centuries are often broken or marred by tools used by looters.

What is both sad and infuriating is that the looting of Cambodian temples and other sites has been well known for many years. Some dealers and collectors didn't care as long as they could get what they wanted, and even the world's most respected museums sometimes turned a blind eye to the practice as they added these objects to their collections. Most museums and reputable dealers today take care to research new acquisitions carefully to determine their provenance, but the danger of unscrupulous dealers and collectors still exists.

The fact that a museum relic passed through Latchford's hands or those of his associates—or any other dealer or collector, for that matter—does not necessarily mean that it was looted. But given that the looting of Cambodia's temples was well-known and that Cambodian antiquities flooded the market in the period following the Khmer Rouge genocide, all museums and dealers have a moral obligation to investigate and report on the origins of the pieces they hold.

Organizations representing U.S. museums, dealers and collectors often lobbied against cultural property agreements or sought to weaken them out of fear that they would give foreign countries carte blanche to seize pieces in their collections. These agreements only affect the new importation of antiquities, but the fears of the collectors and dealers revealed a painful truth: that in many cases they were perfectly happy to acquire objects that they had reason to believe were looted.

It is time for a sea change in the way the world appreciates and studies antiquities, and museums must lead the way. We want to share these beautiful and priceless objects so that people everywhere can admire them and learn from them, as we have committed to do, but we cannot relinquish ownership. We Cambodians are the ones who must decide which objects can be shared outside Cambodia. After all, they have belonged to us for centuries.

Keo Chhea is the ambassador of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.