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Around 1997, a 10th-century sandstone statue of the Hindu war deity Skanda astride an elaborately engraved peacock was stolen from the Prasat Krachap temple in Cambodia. More than two decades later, the Khmer statue, which experts say may feature the face of a family member of King Jayavarman IV, is finally heading home. Its present owner relinquished “Skanda on a Peacock” after a civil complaint seeking its forfeiture was filed in Manhattan on July 15.
The widespread, systematic looting of antiquities was common in Cambodia from the mid-1960s into the 1990s, a period marked by civil war and genocide. After removing statues from their archaeological sites, local looters would typically bring them to brokers on the Cambodian-Thailand border. The brokers would then transport the figures to dealers of Khmer artifacts in Thailand, who sold the objects locally or abroad, inserting them into the international antiquities market. Many of these illegally removed objects found their way to the United States and Europe via Douglas Latchford, a British-Thai antiquities dealer and collector with a specialty in Khmer visual culture.
The civil complaint indicates that the theft of “Skanda on a Peacock” followed a similar storyline. In the 1990s, a Cambodian looter led a group of about 450 others in raids of archaeological sites. One of those sites was Koh Ker, where the Prasat Krachap temple is located. The capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 AD, Koh Ker is characterized by a large temple complex with sacred monuments, including freestanding statues, a relative rarity in Khmer antiquities where reliefs are more common.
After removing “Skanda on a Peacock” from the antechamber of the temple, the looter brought it to a broker on the Thai border, who in turn sold it to Latchford. In the spring of 2000, Latchford sold the statue to a corporate entity for about $1.5 million under the pretense that the object’s country of origin was Thailand. The statue was transferred from Singapore to London, and eventually, New York. The present owner, who voluntarily forfeited the work after being notified of the civil complaint, had inherited the work.
Latchford was charged in 2019 with trafficking in looted Cambodian artifacts, along with related crimes including the falsification of documents, including provenance records and shipping invoices. When he died in 2020, the indictment was dismissed. Latchford’s daughter and heir, Nawapan Kriangsak, went on to agree to repatriate his vast holdings of Cambodian antiquities, the New York Times announced in January this year. The collection of some 125 objects, which is bound for a museum in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, is valued at over $50 million and includes Skanda and Shiva, a statue stolen from Prasat Krachap on the same day as “Skanda on a Peacock” was taken.
Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, indicated that Cambodia is eager to welcome both sculptures home. “Skanda, the Hindu God of War, is rarely depicted in Cambodian art, but appears to have featured prominently in the Prasat Krachap temple complex,” said Sackona in a statement. “[‘Skanda on a Peacock’s’] repatriation testifies to Cambodia’s continuing commitment to finding and bringing back our ancestors’ souls that departed from the motherland over a number of years, during a period of war.”
The former panels, removed in 2017, featured images dedicated to Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
One researcher, Jürgen Schick, estimated that over half of the region’s historical artworks have been stolen.
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