A standoff over Cambodia's lost artworks. The Met may be housing stolen objects, but evidence on both sides is questioned.

In the 1970s, long after its encyclopedic collection had been acknowledged as among the world's finest, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recognised that its South or South east Art were slender. One in house estimate suggested that no more than 60 objects were worth exhibiting.

But over the next few decades it built a world-class collection, acquiring hundreds of artifacts for new galleries that now occupy the equivalent of more than a city block.

The undertaking brought the glories of ancient Cambodia and India, Thailand and Vietnam to New York, where they took pride of place alongside the Western masterpieces that had long defined the museum.

Significant to this effort was Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British-Thai businessman who had become a leading collector, scholar and dealer in Khmer art - and would later be indicted as an illegal trafficker of Cambodian artifacts.

Starting in 1983, Latchford gave or sold the museum 13 artifacts, a modest number but one that included premiere examples of Khmer sculpture. Two gifts were the torsos of massive, twin stone statues, the Kneeling Attendants, that once guarded the doorway to Gallery 249, which focused on Khmer art.

The wall label noted that they had been given ''in honor of Martin Lerner,'' the curator of South and Southeast Asian art who directed the Met's collecting effort.

Cambodian officials now say they believe many of those 13 items were stolen. They suspect that dozens of other artifacts in that gallery and others were also looted, often trafficked by Latchford, who died in 2020.

They say they believe he often sold items to other donors and dealers before they ended up at the museum.

The Cambodians have enlisted the help of the U.S. Justice Department to press for the return of dozens of artworks, basing their claims in parts on the account of a reformed looter.

The looter, Toek Tik, identified 33 artifacts in the Met collection as objects he recalled having personally plundered and sold to intermediaries who often did business with Latchford.

But the dispute has evolved into something of an odd standoff.

The Met says that it has a track record of returning items proved to have been looted, that for years it has been reviewing its Khmer artifacts and that it has updated several provenances as a result and turned that information over to the Cambodian officials.

But the Met has refused to show Cambodia a set of internal documents that might buttress, or undermine, the museum's proper title to the objects, whose slim ownership histories are listed on the website.

Cambodian officials have begun talks with other museums, including the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, which they say have been more cooperative. But they view the Met negotiations as crucial, they said.

''The Met sets the standards for other museums,'' said Gordon, the lawyer for the Cambodian government, ''so it's important that they are totally transparent.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley.


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