Nawapan Kriangsak found out as a young girl that running in her father’s apartment was forbidden. Her father, Douglas A.J. Latchford, was perhaps the world’s leading collector of Cambodian antiquities and every corner of his apartment in Bangkok featured a statue of a Khmer deity too valuable to risk to horseplay.
When she went to bed as a child, Ms. Kriangsak said in an interview, the brooding stone faces would haunt her. “Daddy,” she would tell him, “they walk at night.”
Last summer, when her father died at 88, they all became hers — 125 works that make up what is said to be the greatest private collection of artifacts from Cambodia’s 1,000-year-old Khmer Dynasty.
But Ms. Kriangsak also inherited a disquieting legacy.
Mr. Latchford was not only a recognized scholar of Khmer antiquity, he was also someone who had been accused of having trafficked for decades in looted artifacts.
In 2009, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Douglas Latchford, right, at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Mr. Latchford’s expansive collection of artifacts will be housed in a new museum to be built near the national museum. Credit…Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Ms. Kriangsak said the collection, dazzling and unique and valued by some at more than $50 million, loomed as an enormous burden to curate and maintain. So in a gesture that Cambodian officials embrace as supremely generous, she decided to return all of her father’s Khmer objects to that country, where they can be studied by Khmer scholars and shown in a new museum to be built in Phnom Penh.
It is a stunning turn of events for Cambodians who saw so many of their country’s ancient artifacts disappear during the reign of Pol Pot and the surrounding years of civil war. Officials say the objects had been revered for generations and never perceived as sources of wealth or profit.
“Happiness is not enough to sum up my emotions,” said Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, Phoeurng Sackona. “It’s a magical feeling to know they are coming back.”
“These are not just rocks and mud and metal,” she added. “They are the very blood and sweat and earth of our very nation that was torn away. It is as if we lost someone to war and never thought they’d come home and we are suddenly seeing them turn up at our door.”
Ms. Kriangsak, 49, a lawyer, prefers not to discuss the accusations aimed at her father, but it is clear she views his collecting as acts of veneration, not greed.
“Despite what people say or accuse against Douglas, my father started his collection in a very different era, and his world has changed,” she said. “I have to see the world from the point of view of my family today. I would like everything that Douglas assembled be kept where people around the world can enjoy it and understand it. There is no better place than Cambodia, where the people revere these objects not just for their art or history, but for their religious significance.”
So far, 25 major works dating as far back as the 10th century have been shipped to Phnom Penh from Bangkok, where many had stood bathed in the sunlight that filled Mr. Latchford’s spacious condominium. Another 100 or so objects will be sent to Cambodia in the coming months, both from Bangkok and from Mr. Latchford’s second home in London.
Lawyers for Ms. Kriangsak and the Cambodian government put the value of the collection at more than $50 million if sold individually. Many of the objects are one-of-a-kind, and there are also jewels and golden crowns that were used to adorn the sculptures as they stood in their sacred alcoves.
For decades, Mr. Latchford was widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on Khmer antiquities. Three books he co-wrote on his holdings (and those of other private collectors) remain core reference works. And he made no secret of his collection; the items are lovingly photographed in his books — “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art” (2003); “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods” (2008); and “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past” (2011).
The Cambodian government never accused him of illicit ownership and in fact showered him with honors each time he donated an item, as he did multiple times over the years. In 2008, for example, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Monisaraphon, the equivalent of a knighthood, for “his unique contribution to scholarship and understanding of Khmer culture.”
Cambodian officials said the newly donated items would be carried at the museum as “The Latchford Collection.”
Mr. Latchford also made gifts to many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which in 2012 returned two massive items, known as the “Kneeling Attendants,” to Cambodia after determining they had been looted. Mr. Latchford had donated parts of the statues, which had been broken, to the museum, though he was never accused of any wrongdoing.
But events like that helped to buttress concerns that Mr. Latchford’s collecting methods during the years of Cambodia’s civil war (approximately 1965 to 1979) were dubious. In 2019, federal prosecutors in New York charged him with trafficking in looted Cambodian relics and falsifying documents, and said he had “built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archaeological sites.”
Mr. Latchford long rejected such allegations, often insisting he was the savior of treasures that would have otherwise been destroyed or left to molder in the jungle.
“Admittedly these things were moonlighted out of Cambodia and wound up somewhere else,” Mr. Latchford said in a 2013 interview. “But had they not been, they would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge.”
Federal prosecution efforts against Mr. Latchford, who was never extradited, ended with his death last August. At the time, his daughter said in an interview, the family had already spent two years drawing up a plan to repatriate the artifacts en masse. Mr. Latchford, according to two advisors who helped negotiate the return to Cambodia, Bradley J. Gordon, a lawyer with Edenbridge Asia in Cambodia, and Charles Webb of Hanuman Partners in London, was at first deeply reluctant to hand back what he saw as heirlooms. But Ms. Kriangsak persisted.
“When I started this conversation almost three years ago, I could not anticipate how complex it would become,” she said, adding: “Maybe it’s my Buddhist background that made me start to look at things a little differently. And it didn’t come easily. But in the end I felt, ‘Why should it be just a part of the collection when it should be something really stunning — the entire collection.’”
All parties agree on one point. They hope Ms. Kriangsak’s decision will inspire other private collectors, and perhaps major museums, to return Khmer treasures that truly belong on their native soil.
“When we started this effort three years ago there was little hope they would really come back,” Ms. Sackona said. “But we reached out to the spirits of our ancestors and prayed to them for help.” She lavished praise on Ms. Kriangsak, whom she called “precious and selfless and beautiful.”
“This is a model we hope to see followed by many collectors and museums around the world,” Ms. Sackona said.
“It’s a message,” she continued, “that the statues should be home on our soil — not locked away in some private living room but here in Cambodia where visitors from around the world can see them.”
Mr. Kriangsak echoed that sentiment.
“It is far better,” she said, “that they be in a place where people the world over have a chance to see and enjoy these things.”