Cambodian statutes at Banteay Kdei temple in Angkor in Cambodia (photo by Gerd Eichmann, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“These objects are not just decorations but have spirits and are considered as lives. It is hard to quantify their loss to our temples and country — losing them was like losing the spirits of our ancestors.” These words from Phoeurng Sackona, the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, glean the significance of the bronze, sandstone, copper, and gold statues that were torn from their ancient Khmer temples and purloined into various museum and private collections around the world.

Such practice is common. Douglas Latchford, a self-proclaimed “adventurer scholar,” was personally responsible for the looting of hundreds of these ancient Khmer statutes, selling them to major museums, auction houses, and art dealers around the world. Latchford details his earlier involvement in Cambodia which consisted of helicoptering into remote temples stating he “found [himself] in the depths of the jungle walking along narrow overgrown paths flanked by ‘skull and crossbones’ on a red background, warning us of land mines.” He would go on to create false provenances, misrepresent these provenances, falsify invoices and related shipping documents in order to conceal that the antiquities that were looted, smuggled, or excavated without authorization as a part of a larger scheme to sell these antiquities on a lucrative international market.

Earlier this summer, Latchford died in Thailand fighting extradition. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Denver Art Museum, still hold a number of these antiquities today. Thus, the question of what to do with the pieces Latchford pillaged highlights a struggle between rectifying a cultural underpinning of valuable antiquities by returning them to their rightful homes and a desire to legitimize such institutions by keeping these pieces in place. There is a clear grapple between these two concepts, although, according to Thach Phanit, one of the Cambodian archaeologists working on restoring some of the relics, “[r]eturning the antiquities he stole [would be] like returning the souls of the ancestors back to the country.”

The bottom line is that current laws on the trade of antiquities are insufficient, allowing the looting of culturally significant property to continue. As a result, it has become common practice for these culturally significant antiquities to be looted from source countries (typically less wealthy countries), secretly transported, and then sold to collectors and museums (in typically wealthier countries) where they remain long after someone like Latchford dies. Other famous examples include the looting of the Dream Tablet and the Lydian Hoard.

The so-called Dream Tablet, a cuneiform inscription on this clay tablet that narrates part of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2150–1400 BCE) (photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP [Glasg], courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A number of factors make antiquities a prime target for criminal enterprise. Primarily, antiquities are a finite source. Unlike narcotics or arms which can be cultivated or manufactured, antiquities are in limited supply and can only be derived by looting cultural sites or trading them among existing collections. Plus, they can be small and easily movable. Because they are unique, they retain significant value over long periods of time, and thus these antiquities can be sold and resold over centuries. The United Nations Educations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has stated the profits from illicit antiquities exceeds those of other transnational crimes such as narcotics and arms.

The situation continues to get worse. A recent United States Senate report detailed two Russian Oligarchs evading sanctions by making transactions using art. These transactions were valued in the millions and caused an uproar on Capitol Hill. This incident has caused the financial sector to step in and issue its own set of regulations. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) — the entity responsible for issuing regulations for financial institutions such as banks, check cashing operations, casinos, and the like — has decided to issue their own regulations governing the sale of art and antiquities.

A piece considered to be part of the Karun Treasure, also known as the Lydian Hoard (2012) (photo by Dosseman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

According to FinCEN, these regulations are intended to stop crimes “relating to antiquities and art [that] include looting or theft, the illicit excavation of archaeological items, smuggling, and the sale of stolen or counterfeit objects,” as well as crimes “relating to antiquities and art [that] include money laundering and sanctions violations, and have been linked to transnational criminal networks, international terrorism, and the persecution of individuals or groups on cultural grounds.” On March 9, 2021, FinCEN added the trade of art and antiquities to the Bank Secrecy Act, requiring the filing of “suspicious activity” reports, including “details that may assist in the identification of (1) the objects connected to the financial transactions, (2) other transactions or proposed transactions that may involve antiquities or art, and (3) any other relevant information.” It did not stop there.

On September 23, 2021, FinCEN opened notice and comment on proposed regulation that would seek to end the looting of cultural property, among other art and antiquity related crimes by imposing certain requirements on those engaged in the trade of art and antiquities. FinCEN urged members of the regulated community — the antiquities industry, law enforcement, civil society groups, and the broader public — to submit written comments providing further insight into these regulations. The comment period closed on October 25, 2021. Such regulation could be pivotal towards mending the issues at hand if crafted correctly. If not, more Latchfords will continue to loot pieces that are valuable to cultures, just as he did the artifacts taken from the Cambodian Khmer Temples. Without this key federal legislation, the antiquities trade will continue to operate at a pace that makes these “adventurer scholars” the luminaries of stolen artifacts and impoverishes source countries around the world. 

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Salisha Kayum is a law school student attending Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She focusses her research on the laws governing art and antiquities and specifically on the intersection of art,...