Australia’s return of stolen artefacts ‘rights a historical wrong’

MELBOURNE (AFP): Australia’s national gallery said Thursday it will return three sculptures to Cambodia after an investigation found they were likely to have been “illegally exported” from the country.

The bronze sculptures from the 9th-10th century were bought for $1.5 million in 2011 by British art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was later “convincingly implicated in the illegal trade of antiquities”, the gallery said.

Latchford died in 2020, a year after being charged with trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities. Charges have also been laid posthumously related to works of art he sold, the gallery said.

At a handover ceremony, Susan Templeman, Australia’s special envoy for the arts, said handing the sculptures back to Cambodia was “an opportunity to put right a historical wrong”.

She said the Cambodian government had worked with Australia on the issue with a “cooperative spirit and graciousness”.

Chanborey Cheunboran, Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia, described the handover as “an historic occasion and an important step towards rectifying past injustices, reinforcing the value of cultural properties, and acknowledging the importance of preserving and protecting cultural heritage”.

The sculptures — Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, Bodhisattva Vajrapani and  Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani — will remain on display in Australia for up to three years while the Cambodian government prepares a new home for them in Phnom Penh.

Museums worldwide are returning stolen artefacts as they acknowledge the wrongs inflicted on many countries under colonial rule.

Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum vowed last month to return hundreds of stolen Indonesian and Sri Lankan items, and late last year, London’s Horniman Museum promised to hand some of its treasures back to Nigeria more than 100 years after they were stolen by British forces.