Skip to main content
Best News Website or Mobile Service
WAN-IFRA Digital Media Awards Worldwide
Best News Website or Mobile Service
Digital Media Awards Worldwide
Hamburger Menu




Cambodia’s missing artefacts: Team to call on Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore

The delegation is eyeing museums in Asia as part of a quest to inspect more than 2,000 lost treasures they say belong to Cambodia.

Cambodia’s missing artefacts: Team to call on Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore

Objects from the Cambodian collection at the British Museum in London, which a Cambodian restitution team believes to have passed through the hands of rogue art dealer Douglas Latchford. From left: an 8th-century Parvati goddess head, an 11th-century Baphuon temple statue of the god Vishnu, and one of seven 12th to 14th century bronze figures. (Photos: The Trustees of the British Museum)

SINGAPORE: A Cambodian team on a global quest to hunt down and retrieve scores of what it says are lost national artefacts is turning its attention closer to home.

Singapore, Japan, Korea and Taiwan are slated as future stops after a recently concluded mission to the United Kingdom to examine more than 100 Cambodian antiquities, some of which the delegation believes to be stolen.

Members of the team - which includes government officials, archaeologists, historians and conservators - told CNA on Tuesday (Oct 18) that they expect to open discussions with Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) soon but did not specify a date.

The ACM in August defended its acquisition and provenance processes after Nepalese activists claimed an allegedly stolen 400-year-old religious sculpture was in the museum's possession.

Nepal's Department of Archaeology told CNA it is preparing a report to try and initiate a diplomatic process to recover the object.

The Cambodian restitution team is keen to view the ACM's Cambodian collection, which according to online heritage portal contains 136 items.

"We're taking a position that all these museums are very likely not to have any proper export licence documents, and that many of them are sitting on stolen antiquities," said the team's head and legal adviser Bradley Gordon.

"There's lots of space for collaboration with Singapore ... I could see ACM being a great partner. So I think we need to have that dialogue."


Museums, auction houses and private collectors are facing intensifying calls to return valuable artefacts to Asian and African nations, among others, who say the items were nicked from them by criminal or unethical means.

On Sep 30, cultural ministers from 150 countries at a United Nations conference committed to improving efforts to return historical treasures to their countries of origin.

Cambodia, in particular, suffered widespread looting of archaeological sites during civil conflicts between the 1960s and 1990s.

This was a "massive heist" involving restorers, academics and in some cases around the world, museum curators themselves, said Mr Gordon.

Several precious items are believed to have passed through the hands of notorious late art dealer Douglas Latchford, who created fake documents to smuggle and sell them to Western buyers.

Cambodia's government has since sought to repatriate purportedly stolen antiquities sold on the international market.

Its restitution team has a developing database of more than 2,000 objects outside of Cambodia - and all of them must be attributed to the Southeast Asian country, said members, even if some can continue to be loaned out. 

In August, the United States said it would return 30 looted antiquities to Cambodia - including statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities carved more than 1,000 years ago.

These were handed over by US museums and private collectors.

Cambodian antiquities displayed during a news conference in New York on Aug 8, 2022, where US officials announced the repatriation of 30 artefacts to Cambodia that had been illegally trafficked. (Photo: AP/Seth Wenig)


This year, Cambodia also appealed to the UK government to help recover what it described as important cultural treasures which had "wrongfully" ended up in institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, both located in London. 

The two museums - along with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge - hosted the Cambodian restitution team from September to October, to varying degrees of receptivity, members told CNA.

Members of the Cambodian restitution team, from left, archaeologist Chanraksmey Muong, senior researcher Kunthea Chhoun and art historian Ashley Thompson view the Cambodian collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Sep 30, 2022. (Photo: Cambodian Restitution Team)

While the Victoria and Albert Museum provided full, "unfettered" access to its Cambodian collection and relevant personnel and materials, the British Museum was "difficult to deal with" and provided only minimal or redacted documents, said the team.

At the Ashmolean, provenance records handed to the team turned out to be empty envelopes with a few photographs, and the museum cited confidentiality reasons, said Mr Gordon.

“Some museums could be more collaborative," said researcher and team member Sonetra Seng. "They know that they hold our treasures illegally. We don't want any dispute, but only to get back what belongs to our nation and our people."

The team managed to inspect 140 objects across the museums and is now reviewing the data before submitting formal requests to the institutions.

"We have not concluded yet how many are stolen items, but we presume many of the objects we viewed were illegally removed from Cambodia," said Mr Gordon.

"In due course (we) expect to start discussing repatriations, loan arrangements, and opportunities for training and collaboration."

A seized 10th century Khmer sandstone statue of the Hindu god of war Skanda riding a peacock, pictured during an Aug 8, 2022 announcement of the repatriation and return to Cambodia of 30 Cambodian antiquities sold to US collectors and institutions. (Photo: AP/Seth Wenig)


The Cambodian restitution team told CNA how its ongoing campaign has unearthed an enormous amount of documents including invoices, receipts and email correspondences.

"We believe in the future we will see greater success in recovering stolen antiquities," they said in emailed comments.

"Right now, the priority is to find out where everything is located ... The core principle here is to return to a people their heritage."   

An archaeologist on the team, Ms Sopheap Meas, told the BBC in May that the lost Cambodian artefacts - many of which have sustained damage over the years, with pieces broken off - were more than just stones.

To Cambodians, a statue for example can hold the soul of a king, god or ancestor - thus a sculpture with a missing leg is akin to a real limb being severed.

Senior researcher Soklida Tek echoed these sentiments, telling CNA this week that every statue made by their ancestors was a living Cambodian treasure.

"(Museums) should not store our kings, ancestors and gods, with broken heads and broken torsos, all locked away ... This is bad luck," she said.

"Let them go free and find their bodies and heads to come home and reside once again in Cambodia, their motherland.”

47:46 Min

The first episode of the CNA documentary Looted looks at how a new generation of social media activists are putting pressure on Western museums and private art collections, to return stolen artefacts to the countries from which they were looted from.

47:01 Min

Investigators across Cambodia, Thailand, London and New York are on the hunt for evidence to reclaim ancient artefacts stolen by one of the most infamous art thieves in the world, as CNA finds out in the second episode of its documentary Looted.

Source: CNA/jo(ta)


Also worth reading