Calls to repatriate relics after death of controversial British art dealer 'Dynamite Doug'

Nicola Smith
·5-min read
Douglas Latchford, pictured with then Cambodian deputy prime minister Sok An, was once a revered figure in the antiquities world - Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Douglas Latchford, pictured with then Cambodian deputy prime minister Sok An, was once a revered figure in the antiquities world - Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

For decades Douglas Latchford, a flamboyant British antiquities expert, cultivated a legendary status as one of the leading dealers of Southeast Asian art.

But last year at the age of 88, his respectable façade was shattered. The man so revered in international museum and gallery circles was indicted by US prosecutors, on charges of trafficking stolen Cambodian treasures.

Then earlier this month came another unexpected turn, when Latchford died in Bangkok, his home since 1951.

He left behind him a host of unanswered questions -- among them, whether justice will ever be served  to the lands he allegedly plundered.

“Because the defendant died with his US Federal case pending, and therefore before a final judgement could be issued, the indictment will likely be dismissed,” said Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA).

Prosecutors might still pursue alleged co-conspirators, she said. But Langford's death meant that crucial information -- including the whereabouts of priceless relics from Cambodia and other Asian nations --  had been taken to his grave.

Many artefacts were currently untraceable, in the hands of unidentified private dealers he had sold to. “Where it gets more complicated is just knowing where those pieces are and the length of time it will take for them to bubble up on the market,” she said.

Latchford was long hailed as a respected expert in Khmer antiquities, co-writing renowned reference books on the subject. He had been praised as a protector of Cambodia’s relics after donating rare pieces to the national museum in Phnom Penh. The gift earned him the honour of the country’s equivalent of a knighthood in 2008.

Latchford won praise and honours for repatriating a number of Khmer antiquities to Cambodia's National Museum in 2009 - Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Latchford won praise and honours for repatriating a number of Khmer antiquities to Cambodia's National Museum in 2009 - Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

But US prosecutors painted a much darker picture of the dealer, alleging that he was a major player in a multibillion-dollar cultural property transnational criminal network.

They depicted him as a “conduit” for Cambodian artefacts that had been illegally excavated from ancient jungle temples during political turmoil.

The Cambodian government has complained that many statues were stolen during years of civil unrest, war and the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. A 1996 law on cultural heritage protection forbade the excavation, looting, and improper export of antiquities.

Announcing the charges against Latchford last year, US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said: “As alleged, Latchford built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archaeological sites, in the international art market.”

Prosecutors alleged that from about 2000 to 2012, he engaged in a fraudulent scheme to sell looted relics on the international market, creating false records and evidence to conceal that antiquities had been smuggled and illegally plundered.

He was accused of falsifying invoices, shipping documents, emails and letters to hide his tracks and avoid import restrictions into the US.

Key to his operation was a British auction house, referred to by prosecutors as “Auction-House-1” which he supplied with Khmer relics, including some allegedly looted from the Koh Ker archaeological site.

Latchford allegedly conspired with representatives from the auction house to conceal the real provenance of the antiquities, and create false export licences to sell the goods to museums and collectors in the US.

Among the artefacts was the Duryodhana statue, a 10th century sandstone statue of a warrior that has since been returned to Phnom Penh.

Brazen emails from Latchford to a Manhattan-based dealer were also cited as evidence against him. In one April 2007 message, he attached a photo of a standing Buddha statue that appeared to be covered in dirt.

“Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic," he wrote. "It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

The Sunday Telegraph attempted to reach Latchford’s family for comment. The dealer, a dual British and Thai citizen known to some by the nickname “Dynamite Doug”, always strongly denied any wrongdoing.

In earlier interviews, he argued that Western dealers like himself had in fact rescued long abandoned works of art, which might otherwise have been destroyed in Cambodia’s civil wars. He defended his collecting practices as the norm at a time when standards of documentation were much lower. It is a controversial argument, one also put forward by friends after his death.

“His collection was substantially put together long before cultural heritage laws were introduced. The world was very different in those days, it is wrong to perceive his actions solely through a 2020s’ lens," one told The Art Newspaper.

Others are determined to see the artefacts returned to their rightful owners. US investigators said last year they had successfully recovered three stolen pieces from Cambodia and another from India, valued at a total of $750,000. The Southern District of New York and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office confirmed on Friday they would continue looking into the case.

Tess Davis, executive director of The Antiquities Coalition, appealed for witnesses to come forward in the hope that some looted works would one day be repatriated.

"His collection is still out there, somewhere, and it remains the stolen property of the Cambodian people.," she said. "Possession of stolen property is a crime -- a continuing crime. This is not over.”

She added: "Now, from Cambodia, to Hong Kong, to Bangkok, there are many people out there who have much valuable information…I hope they do the right thing and come forward."