In an emotional ceremony in January this year, the government of Cambodia expressed heartfelt gratitude to a British-Thai woman, Julia Latchford, for what seemed a remarkably generous offer of immense cultural importance. Latchford had agreed to give the south-east Asian country her entire collection of 125 antiquities from Cambodia’s Khmer period – magnificent statues, sculptures, gold and bronze figurines that she had inherited when her father, Douglas, died last year.
Cambodia’s culture minister, Phoeurng Sackona, described Julia Latchford as “precious and selfless and beautiful”, and said of the historic treasures: “Happiness is not enough to sum up my emotions … It’s a magical feeling to know they are coming back.”
But behind the ceremonial smiles lay a shameful reality: that during Cambodia’s decades of turmoil, its astonishing cultural heritage, sacred antiquities crafted as long ago as the ninth century, were ruthlessly plundered and sold around the world.
Douglas Latchford, who lorded it over the Cambodian cultural scene for decades and was hailed as an expert and benefactor, had been accused before he died of being a prolific trader in looted antiquities, and charged with criminal offences. From his base in Bangkok, Latchford bought sculptures he is alleged to have known were originally ransacked from Cambodia’s ancient sites by organised criminals, then made millions selling them via prestige dealers and auction houses in London, New York and elsewhere. Glories of Khmer heritage ended up in some great museums and wealthy private homes, and now Cambodia, assisted by the US government, is seeking their return.
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which maintains records of the “killing fields” genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, says the return of its heritage is key to repairing the country.
“Cambodia is still in search of her identity, which has been eradicated by French colonialism, war and genocide, for many decades,” he said. “Cultural and religious heritage is a form of her identity and all the broken pieces must be put back in place.”
Douglas Latchford’s decades-long career illuminates huge questions about the restitution of sacred heritage looted from many countries for triumphant display in the west. The Pandora papers, which were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), expose another part of Latchford’s empire: the use of trusts and offshore tax havens to pass his assets, including the Khmer antiquities, to his daughter to avoid them becoming liable to UK inheritance tax.
Papers held by an offshore services provider were reviewed by the ICIJ and Guardian as part of a global investigation. They show how Latchford formed two trusts in Jersey, both named after Hindu gods: the Skanda Trust in 2011 and the Siva Trust in 2012. Julia Latchford and other members of the family were beneficiaries, and she was a trustee of the Skanda Trust. Another trustee was a company, Skanda Holdings (PTC) Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands, with Douglas Latchford, and Julia’s husband, Simon Copleston, its directors.
The papers reveal that the Skanda Trust had accounts in other offshore tax havens, including with Rathbones, a wealth management firm in Jersey, where very considerable amounts of money were held and invested.
In 2011, almost simultaneously with the formation of the Skanda Trust, Latchford credited it as the owner of 80 Cambodian antiquities in a glossy book he published, Khmer Bronzes. No details were given for the trust, nor was it explained that the new owner of the antiquities was a structure formed for the benefit of Latchford and his family. Khmer Bronzes was the third book featuring Cambodian treasures published by Latchford, following Adoration and Glory in 2004, and in 2008, Khmer Gold.
In 2003, the US and Cambodian governments had signed a landmark agreement committing to tracing and pursuing the return of all looted heritage, an effort led by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). An antiquities trafficking unit was formed in New York in 2017, dedicated to investigating stolen treasures.
The first US legal action that identified Latchford as a looter, and stunned the dealing world, followed the halting in March 2011 of a proposed sale in New York by Sotheby’s of a 10th-century Cambodian sandstone sculpture, the Duryodhana bondissant, alleged to have been stolen from Prasat Chen, a temple at the 10th-century Khmer capital, Koh Ker. Latchford was alleged in the legal action to have bought the Duryodhana in 1972 knowing it was looted, consigned it to a London auction house, Spink & Son, then conspired with Spink’s representatives to “fraudulently obtain export licences”.
He was rocked again in 2016 when Nancy Wiener, a celebrated New York gallery owner, was indicted, charged with possessing stolen property. Two 10th-century pieces supplied by Latchford featured in the charges: a statue of the Hindu god Shiva valued at $578,500 (£423,000) and a bronze Buddha sitting on a throne of Naga that Latchford sold Wiener for $500,000.
Wiener pleaded guilty on 30 September, admitting buying those figures from Latchford knowing they had been looted, then selling them with false provenance. The Naga Buddha “appeared to have been struck by an agricultural tool”, a sign of “illegal excavation”, she admitted, but nevertheless she put it up for sale for $1.5m.
A photograph of that Naga Buddha, attributed to the Skanda Trust, was featured in Khmer Bronzes. The indictment alleged that such books were themselves part of falsifying antiquities’ provenance, presenting them as respectable. The HSI special agent Brenton Easter stated: “Publishing a photograph of a looted antiquity is a common laundering practice.”
Under a cloud
The very cover of Latchford’s 2004 book, Adoration and Glory, featured a picture of a Khmer sculpture, Shiva and his son Skanda, the god of war. As recently as July this year, the US authorities alleged the sculpture had been looted from the Prasat Krachap temple complex in Koh Ker, carried away by a gang of looters on an oxcart in September 1997 with 12 more significant statues. The Shiva and Skanda is one of the first five pieces Julia Latchford has now returned to Cambodia. The US action is seeking to seize another of those masterpieces, Skanda on a Peacock, from its current, unnamed owner. Douglas Latchford is alleged to have sold it in April 2000 for $1.5m.
Interviewed in 2012 after the clouds had begun to shadow him, Latchford presented himself as a saviour, saying Cambodian antiquities were in “better hands” and would otherwise have been destroyed during years of violence and occupation by Vietnam through the 1980s. But Latchford made a tremendous amount of money from his trade and he continued to sell until as late as 2018, according to evidence obtained by the ICIJ and seen by the Guardian.
In November 2019 Latchford was charged in New York. The 25-page indictment included charges of selling stolen property, smuggling, falsifying documents, wire fraud and other offences relating to buying and selling antiquities looted from Koh Ker. He was terminally ill by then and incapacitated. He did not get the chance to defend himself against the charges, as he died in August last year.
Although the Cambodian government responded magnanimously to Julia Latchford’s promise of returning everything she had, she acknowledges that law enforcement authorities continue to investigate her father’s estate, which she inherited, for proceeds of crime. In 2016, following the Wiener indictment, Douglas Latchford’s investments, said to include the Rathbones account, are understood to have been subject to a suspicious activity report in Jersey, a format that enables suspected money laundering to be reported to relevant authorities.
Responding to questions from the Guardian and the ICIJ, Julia Latchford, 50, said she and Simon Copleston were not personally subject to any investigation, and had not been involved in the sales of antiquities while they were part of the Skanda and Siva trust structure. During the time that the “inheritance trust structure held the collection of Cambodian artefacts”, which she said ended in 2016, her father had given her “credible” assurance that the allegations against him were false, she said. She was also reassured by the “close relationship” Douglas Latchford still had then with museums and the Cambodian authorities and the fact that major European auction houses continued to sell Khmer antiquities.
“I now know from recent research into his affairs, and becoming aware of information not available to us at the time (including the findings of law enforcement bodies) that in general and in particular cases, he lied to me, and concealed certain actions from me,” she said.
She began to hold independent discussions with the Cambodian government from 2017, she said, and her promise to return all the antiquities is understood to have been part of a formal agreement she signed with Phnom Penh shortly after her father died. She has agreed also to hand over his full documentation, said to include an inventory of his sales and extensive wider evidence of the global trade in Khmer antiquities.
Negotiations with her were led by two US lawyers, Bradley J Gordon and Steven Heimberg, representing the Cambodian ministry of culture and fine arts. Their sole focus, Gordon says, is return of the heritage, including all approximately 600 pieces featured in Latchford’s three books.
“Our approach is that all of the sacred statues and other antiquities from the [ninth- to 15th-century] Angkor and pre-Angkor period that have been taken out from Cambodia, particularly since 1970, have been removed illegally,” Gordon said. “The burden is on the person with possession to show they have proper permits and provenance. Very few people, if any, when asked, will be able to come up with proper permits and provenance.”
Julia Latchford said of the continuing investigation into her father’s money: “I am aware of and am voluntarily cooperating with the authorities on the investigations with respect to my father’s estate and any proceeds of crime and am committed to their resolution.”
Her representatives have emphasised that Douglas Latchford made substantial money independently of trading antiquities, in pharmaceutical companies across south-east Asia and property development. Julia Latchford has also said she does not regard all his antiquities trading to have been illegal, suggesting she does not intend to return all the money from his sales of Khmer antiquities. “We understood (and still understand) his collection to comprise many objects with strong provenance,” she said.
Tracing where Cambodia’s cultural heritage ended up is dizzying detective work, spanning continents and taking in different museums, dealers and a still unknown number of wealthy individuals who bought pieces.
People unfamiliar with the dirty trade in sacred antiquities might assume that Latchford’s 2019 indictment rang an alarm worldwide, and every organisation and person holding Khmer treasures that might have come from him will have inspected their provenance. In general, however, that has not happened. Tess Davis, the executive director of the Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, who has extensively researched Douglas Latchford and Cambodian looting networks, says that with a few exceptions, the response of museums worldwide has been “deafening silence”.
Spink & Son was taken over by Christie’s in 1993. A Christie’s spokesperson said they could not discuss Spink’s past sales of Khmer relics now held in many prominent museums, and whether they were supplied by Douglas Latchford. Asked if they were in contact with the relevant authorities, the spokesperson said: “Christie’s is actively engaged in supporting the repatriation of illegally exported cultural property and is in contact with governments and law enforcement agencies as appropriate. We cannot provide specific details.”
The British Museum has five pieces Latchford donated – from Thailand, not Cambodia, and has received “no official request” for their return, a spokesperson said. Of 46 Khmer sculptures, none came from Latchford, all but two were certainly removed from Cambodia before 1970, and the museum “has not received an approach from the Cambodian government” concerning them, the spokesperson said.
Still, the detective work continues, the slow process of reuniting a country with the treasures of its past that have been ruthlessly looted, transported, traded and stashed away offshore.