US authorities return 33 looted antiquities to Cambodia

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Priceless antiquities that were looted from the historic Khmer sites of Koh Ker and Angkor Wat will be repatriated to Cambodia after officials from the US Attorney’s Office for the New York’s southern district and the Department of Homeland Security turned the 33 objects over to Cambodian officials on 11 September. The objects had all belonged to the late collector George Lindemann, who died in 2018, and whose family voluntarily turned the artefacts over to authorities.

The objects being repatriated date from the tenth century to the 12th century, and include a reclining figure of Vishnu with Lakshmi that was taken from the Krachap temple at Koh Ker (the Khmer kingdom’s capital), a monumental sculpture of the seated figure of Dhrishtadyumna also from Koh Ker and six heads of demonic and angelic figures that were taken off a gate in the Angkor Wat complex.

The US Attorney’s Office for the southern district of New York has now assisted in the return of 65 Cambodian antiquities since 2012; the latest repatriation follows the renewal, on 30 August, of a memorandum of understanding between the US and Cambodian governments regarding cultural patrimony, which was first signed in 2003.

A 10th-century sculpture of the seated figure Dhrishtadyumna that was looted from Koh Ker Courtesy United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York

“For decades, Cambodia suffered at the hands of unscrupulous art dealers and looters who trafficked cultural treasures to the American art market,” Damian Williams, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said in a statement. “This historic agreement sets a framework for the return of cultural patrimony in support of the memorandum of understanding between the US and Cambodia. We thank the Lindemann family for their cooperation and assistance in the repatriation of the antiquities to Cambodia.”

Lindemann, a billionaire businessman, art collector and supporter of the Metropolitan Opera, passed the collecting bug on to his children, the New York-based dealer and collector Adam Lindemann, the Bass Museum board president George Lindemann Jr. and the San Francisco lawyer Sloan Lindemann Barnett. Last year, a feature on Lindemann Barnett’s home that had been published by Architectural Digest in 2021 came under intense scrutiny after its photographs appeared to have been retroactively edited to remove Cambodian artefacts. The Cambodian government said at the time that the objects matched descriptions of Khmer antiquities that had been looted.

The trade in antiquities that were looted from Cambodia during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s has come under intense international scrutiny in recent years, with countless artefacts repatriated from public institutions and private collections. Many of these passed through the hands of Douglas Latchford, a dealer who was indicted in 2019 for his suspected involvement in a vast smuggling operation; the indictment was dismissed following his death in 2020.

More recently one of Latchford’s associates, the Denver-based scholar named Emma Bunker who died in 2021, has become the subject of investigations. The Denver Art Museum, of which she was a supporter, has returned some Cambodian objects it acquired through her and taken her name off a gallery wall. Latchford and Bunker’s dealings were the subject of the recent podcast Dynamite Doug.

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