Thailand celebrates return of looted statues from New York's Met

A 900-year-old statue smuggled out of Thailand was welcomed back to the kingdom in an official repatriation ceremony in Bangkok (MANAN VATSYAYANA)
A 900-year-old statue smuggled out of Thailand was welcomed back to the kingdom in an official repatriation ceremony in Bangkok (MANAN VATSYAYANA)

Two statues smuggled out of Thailand, including a 900-year-old sculpture that spent three decades at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were welcomed back to the kingdom in an official repatriation ceremony in Bangkok on Tuesday.

A 129-centimetre (51-inch) statue of the Hindu god Shiva, dubbed "Golden Boy", was repatriated after being linked to British-Thai art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was charged with trafficking looted relics from Cambodia and Thailand shortly before he died in 2020.

The statue, displayed in the Met from 1988 to 2023, was discovered near the Cambodian border during an archaeological dig at Prasat Ban Yang ruins more than 50 years ago.

It is believed to have been smuggled out of Thailand by Latchford in 1975.

A second bronze sculpture, a 43-centimetre (17-inch) kneeling female figure with her hands above her head in a Thai greeting posture dubbed "Kneeling Woman", was also returned after it was linked to Latchford.

The return of the items comes as a growing number of museums worldwide discuss steps to repatriate looted artworks.

"We are honoured to get these artefacts back, they shall be located in their motherland permanently," the director-general of  Thailand's Fine Arts Department Phnombootra Chandrachoti said at the repatriation ceremony at the National Museum in Bangkok.

"However, the effort of returning looted objects doesn't end here," he added in a news conference later.

"We aim to get them all back."

The two statues are part 16 sculptures due to be returned to Cambodia and Thailand by the Met, which said in a statement December that it is "removing from its collection all Angkorian sculptures works known by the Museum to be associated with the dealer Douglas Latchford".

US ambassador to Thailand Robert F Godec said the return of the statues would strengthen cultural ties between the two countries.

"We are pleased to support the preservation of Thai history and to strengthen our cultural ties. Welcome home 'Golden Boy' and 'Kneeling Woman'!" Godec wrote on social media platform X.

Latchford, who died aged 88 at his home in Bangkok, was widely regarded as a pre-eminent scholar of Cambodian antiquities, winning praise for his books on Khmer Empire art.

In 2019, he was charged by prosecutors in New York with smuggling looted Cambodian relics and helping to sell them on the international art market.

The looting of artefacts from Cambodian archaeological sites was common between the mid-1960s and early 1990s as the country experienced ongoing civil unrest and regular outbreaks of civil war, with sites in neighbouring Thailand also hit by smugglers.

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