British Museum to be inspected for ‘looted’ Cambodian artefacts

Cambodia - Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Cambodia - Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The British Museum will be scoured for “stolen” Cambodian artefacts, as experts have been granted permission to inspect its collection.

The Cambodian government demanded the right to inspect in order to recover statues looted during the chaos of Khmer Rouge rule, which they suspect were trafficked into the UK by a British art dealer, and ultimately sold into the museum’s vast and largely unseen collection.

The British Museum has granted unprecedented permission for a specialist team to inspect antiquities and identify potentially stolen objects, according to ministers in Cambodia, as the country aims to secure the repatriation of its plundered artwork.

The V&A Museum has also given permission for inspections of its own collection which, like that of the British Museum, is suspected of containing objects fraudulently sold by late British art dealer Douglas Latchford.

Sackona Phoeurng, the minister of culture and fine arts for the Kingdom of Cambodia, told The Telegraph: “We are delighted to have been invited by the highly regarded British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum to survey precious objects of Cambodian cultural heritage in their possession.”


The minister added that the Cambodian authorities are “looking forward to an open and forthright dialogue” with the London museums, following inspections which are set to take place within the next two months.

Inspections led by expert antiquarians will first seek to establish what Cambodian objects the museums hold, how they arrived in the respective collections, and whether they match objects believed to have been looted from conflict zones during and after Pol Pot’s communist rule.

Cambodia’s experts believe the British Museum and V&A may contain statues sold by art dealer Latchford, who made millions selling South East Asian art from his Bangkok base, before being charged with dealing in treasures plundered from ancient Cambodian sites in the confusion of state violence and unrest from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Former looters once at the front line of this trade have recently cooperated with authorities to provide descriptions and measurements of objects they took from ancient temples, which the Cambodian delegation may use to match against objects held in museum storerooms.

It is unclear what will happen following these inspections, as claims about suspect provenance may be contested by the museums’ own experts, and there will likely be a need for negotiations over any potential repatriation of objects.

The V&A has previously stated that it has been open about the provenance of its objects while being happy to learn more, and The British Museum has maintained that the objects in its collection have been acquired “in good faith”.

But Cambodia’s legal team has previously raised concerns about treasures entering museum collections during the Khmer Rouge rule and later unrest, a time when no official exports of art were sanctioned and therefore casting suspicions over all acquisitions from this period.

The antiques looted during this time largely date from Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, which lasted from the ninth to the 15th century, and examples of devotional Hindu and Buddhist statues from this period have sold for millions on the modern art market.

Antiques dealer Latchford was charged with fraud by US authorities in 2019 when he was accused of being “engaged in a scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiques to the international art market”.

A 25-page indictment stated that he provided fake provenance information for objects taken by looters, allowing them to be sold to buyers in the US and UK. He died before the case was advanced.

In 2021 Nawapan Kriangsak, his daughter, agreed to repatriate the family’s entire collection of Cambodian artefacts.

The museums have been contacted for comment.