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U.S. To Return 27 Smuggled Khmer Antiquities to Cambodia

Khmer artifacts were displayed during the handover ceremony to Cambodian government at the Manhattan District Attorney Office, in New York, on June 09, 2021. (Courtesy of Royal Embassy of Cambodia to the United States)

United States law enforcement agencies in New York, U.S., are returning 27 pieces of antiquities back to Cambodia, according to officials from both countries.

The antiquities were confiscated from two New York-based art galleries. The pieces date back to the Angkor era and include Buddhist and Hindu statues made of either bronze or sandstones.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said the restitutions were part of operations conducted to counter the trafficking of “culturally significant items”.

“The repatriation of these 27 stunning relics to the people of Cambodia restores an important link between the nation’s classical Angkor era and its modern customs and beliefs that, for far too long, was disrupted by the greed of stolen antiquities traffickers,” Vance said at the ceremony held at his New York office on Wednesday.

Among the 27 items, 24 were confiscated from art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is serving a jail term in India for possessing stolen artifacts, and another three were taken from another art gallery owned by Nancy Weiner, an art dealer facing several charges in relation to her artifacts business.

Cambodian Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona attended the event virtually and said the country welcomed the repatriation of its long-lost relics.

“The repatriation provides evidence that even during the difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia remains committed to finding and bringing back our ancestors’ souls that departed their motherland over a number of years, including during a period of war,” she said.

According to Vance’s office, the estimated price of the 27 artifacts was around $3.8 million in the arts black market.

“[W]hile the underground market value of these items is in the millions, these pieces are invaluable to the preservation of Cambodian history,” said Peter C. Fitzhugh, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's New York special agent in charge.

Hab Touch, secretary of state at Cambodia’s Culture Ministry, said the government was in the process of getting the artifacts back to Cambodia.

“Regarding when [they will arrive in Cambodia], we have not determined that because we are now proceeding with the paperwork that we now keep them at a safe warehouse out there first,” Touch told VOA Khmer.

He said Cambodian officials believe “so many” other pieces of Khmer artifacts – trafficked abroad during the country’s decades of civil war – are yet to be retrieved.

In January, the family of late British “art scholar” Douglas Latchford announced it would return more than 100 pieces of Khmer artifacts from his personal collection.

But, Hab Touch said shipment of the first batch of artifacts from Latchford’s collection, who was accused of possessing stolen art, would be delayed to July due to complications involving international travel and logistics during the COVID-19 pandemic.