Australia Returns Stolen Cambodian Artefacts, Signaling a Step Towards Rectifying Historical Injustices

In a significant move, Australia’s national gallery has decided to return three bronze sculptures dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries to Cambodia. The decision comes after a thorough investigation conducted by both countries to ascertain the origin of these artworks. The Cambodian government has applauded this development, considering it a crucial step towards rectifying past injustices. This decision is part of a wider global effort to repatriate cultural artifacts that have been looted and stolen.

The three sculptures in question originally belonged to the Champa Kingdom, which occupied parts of Cambodia and Vietnam in ancient times. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) acquired these artworks in 2011 for a sum of A$2.3 million from Douglas Latchford, a British smuggler known for his involvement in the illicit antiquities trade. Latchford, who passed away in 2020, had faced allegations of dealing in stolen Cambodian artefacts since 2016. Posthumously, charges were filed against him for his connection to the theft of numerous Cambodian artworks.

As per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), at least one of the statues was excavated from a field in Tboung Khmum, located in eastern Cambodia, in 1994. It was then smuggled to international art dealers in Thailand. Nawapan Kriangsak, Latchford’s daughter, collaborated with researchers from the NGA and Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to support the repatriation process.

While the sculptures will remain on display at the NGA in Canberra for the next three years, Cambodia is making arrangements to provide a new home for them in Phnom Penh, its capital city. At a handover ceremony, Australia’s Special Envoy for the Arts, Susan Templeman, emphasized the significance of this act in correcting historical wrongs and strengthening bilateral ties.

Cambodia has consistently appealed to international governments for the return of thousands of antiquities that were stolen from its ancient temples. These include artifacts currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. Notably, this is not the first instance in which the NGA has repatriated stolen artworks. In 2021, the gallery returned a collection of artifacts, some dating back to the 11th century, to India. These pieces were associated with Subhash Kapoor, an alleged antiquities smuggler, and the late New York art dealer William Wolff.

This move by Australia aligns with global efforts to repatriate culturally significant antiquities to their rightful owners. Earlier this year, it was announced that four Aboriginal spears, taken by British explorer Captain James Cook and his landing party in 1770, would be returned to their indigenous communities after being housed at Cambridge University for many years. The repatriation of these spears is the culmination of a 20-year campaign led by First Nations communities.

In conclusion, Australia’s decision to return the stolen Cambodian artefacts represents a significant stride towards rectifying historical injustices and promoting cultural heritage preservation. It highlights the importance of acknowledging and addressing the consequences of the illicit trade in antiquities. This action sets a positive precedent for other nations to follow, fostering a global movement towards the repatriation of looted cultural treasures.