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The Met to Announce Plans to Return Khmer Artifacts

NEW YORK: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art says it will make an announcement tomorrow on repatriating some of its Khmer collection after years of requests from the Cambodian government for confirmation that the items were obtained legally. The announcement comes days before the release of a 60 Minutes episode investigating stolen Khmer artifacts.

In the 1970’s the museum only held several dozens of Southeast Asian artifacts, but the collection grew exponentially over the next two decades, which happened to coincide with the turmoil of Cambodia’s civil war, during which the country’s historic sites were ravaged by looters looking to make money in desperate circumstances.

One of the profiteers of the situation was Douglas Latchford, once hailed as a renowned art dealer, but later found to be a smuggler of stolen artifacts. Starting in 1983, Latchford gave or sold the museum 13 artifacts, many depicting iconic examples of Khmer sculpture.

The Cambodian government has since asked the Met for papers detailing the origin of its Khmer collection. The Met said that it regards such documents as internal business records, not subject to disclosure “without a legal basis.”

Cambodia has partnered with the U.S. Justice Department to reclaim dozens of pieces of art from various collections. Bradley Gordon, a lawyer for Cambodia’s government has said, “The burden of proof should be on the Met to prove the Met has the right to legally own Cambodia’s national treasures.”

Minister of Culture Phoeurng Sackona said she is surprised and disappointed to see so many Cambodian artifacts in the Met. If and when the Met decides to return Cambodia’s cultural heritage, it will set a standard for other museums to do the same.

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