By TOM MASHBERG
Published: December 12, 2012.
“BANGKOK — For decades Douglas A. J. Latchford, an 81-year-old British art collector, has built a reputation as one of the world’s great experts in Khmer antiquities, one whose generous return of treasures to Cambodia garnered him knighthood there in 2008.
But last month Mr. Latchford, who lives here in an apartment brimming with Asian artifacts, was depicted less chivalrously in a civil complaint filed by the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan.
The federal lawyers said Mr. Latchford, identified in court papers only as “the Collector,” bought a 10th-century Khmer warrior statue in the early 1970s knowing that it had been looted from a jungle temple during the Cambodian civil war.
The lawyers are trying to help Cambodia recover the artwork, a 500-pound sandstone statue, which Sotheby’s in New York still hopes to sell for millions of dollars on behalf of its current owner.
For Sotheby’s and the federal government the court case is the latest pitched battle over what is fair and appropriate when regulating the sale of global antiquities.
For Mr. Latchford, who denies ever having owned the work, the case has brought unwelcome attention to a long career in the tangled world of antiquities collecting, where the tenets of private property, cultural preservation and national patrimony often clash.
“If the French and other Western collectors had not preserved this art, what would be the understanding of Khmer culture today?” he asked in an interview.
Mr. Latchford, well known here as a bodybuilding impresario who runs national competitions, has spent more than 55 years amassing one of the world’s finest collections of Cambodian antiquities, many of which once decorated his second home in London. He has donated many others to institutions, including the National Museum in Phnom Penh and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Experts cite histhree books on Khmer treasures, written with the scholar Emma C. Bunker, as crucial reference works.
“His gifts are very important because these artifacts teach the Cambodian people about their history,” said Hab Touch, the Cambodian government director-general of the Department General of Cultural Affairs. “We hope his generosity will set a good example for others.”
The United States government lawyers, though, said his conduct regarding the Sotheby’s statue, known as the Duryodhana, was less praiseworthy. Its pedestal and feet were found in the ground in 2007 at a sacked temple site called Koh Ker, and in court papers the lawyers assert that Mr. Latchford (who acknowledges he is the unnamed collector in their complaint) bought the statue from a Thai dealer who, they say, had gotten it from an organized looting network.
They say Mr. Latchford then helped to get the sculpture into Britain by assisting with export licenses that were meant to conceal what was actually being shipped.
The London auction house Spink & Son sold the statue in 1975 to a Belgian man whose widow is the current owner. She approached Sotheby’s to sell it in 2010, but the sale was suspended when the Cambodian government objected. Sotheby’s is fighting the United States government’s effort to seize the statue on Cambodia’s behalf, arguing in court that there is no evidence that the statue was looted or is the property of the Cambodian government.
It is not clear from the court papers what evidence the government has to support its depiction of Mr. Latchford, who is not a defendant in the case. The United States attorney’s office declined a request for an interview.
Mr. Latchford said that the government lawyers, desperate to seize a high-profile antiquity, were “weaving together suppositions” to inflate his role. “This is somebody’s imagination working overtime,” he said.
He said he had once hoped to own the statue, which he said he did not believe was looted, and that a Spink representative in Bangkok had purchased it on his recommendation from the unidentified Thai dealer. But he said he had never bought it. He acknowledged that, as a matter of record keeping, Spink appears to have listed it under his name in its files.
Internal Sotheby’s documents appear to back up his recollection. In one 2010 e-mail Mr. Latchford told a Sotheby’s official that he had once owned the statue, but he corrected himself a few weeks later, long before the sale of the statue had become an issue for Cambodian officials or American lawyers. “I have checked my records and notice that I had the guardian figure on reserve from Spink’s in 1970 but never actually bought it,” he wrote.
Mr. Latchford similarly denied any role in procuring export licenses. “I never conspired with anyone,” he said.
A judge is expected to rule on the government’s effort to seize the statue in several months. Sotheby’s said Cambodia could not lay claim to a statue “that was abandoned to the jungle 50 generations ago.” The government maintained in court papers that the statue was still Cambodian property because the “state has never transferred the Duryodhana to any private owner, whether by sale, gift or otherwise.”
Born in Bombay and educated in Britain, Mr. Latchford, a believer in reincarnation, said two Buddhist priests once told him that “in a previous life I had been Khmer, and that what I collect had once belonged to me.”
He bought his first statue in Thailand in the mid-1950s, he said, for $700. His collecting became more focused in the 1960s, when stone and bronze antiquities and ornaments from the Khmer dynasty began appearing in Bangkok’s old “thieves market.” When asked about those days Mr. Latchford spins tales of bumping his Jeep along makeshift roads in the jungles of Thailand and Cambodia, exploring vine-entangled temples and the shattered outposts from a 1,000-year-old fallen empire.
He and other well-known collectors, he said, would buy and trade what became available without fretting over the provenance details that govern modern antiquities transactions. They were rescuers, not plunderers, he said, pointing out that he and others have restored, protected, cataloged and donated artifacts that might have been broken into pieces or lost or neglected.
A few of these items fill his sprawling condominium here, alongside modern art, wooden Buddhas, and stone and bronze Siamese and Burmese objects. Tall and hale, with short-cropped gray hair, Mr. Latchford is convivial, greeting guests in his slippers and offering tea and biscuits. He made his fortune, he said, in pharmaceuticals and property development in Asia and is president of the Thailand Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Association.
Mr. Latchford said he hoped to obtain Cambodian citizenship and planned to retire to an area near the temples of Angkor. In 2008 he helped raise $195,000 for lighting for the National Museum. He said Cambodian cultural officials often referred to him as lok kru (respected teacher) and bong (elder brother).
Some skepticism, though, had arisen toward Mr. Latchford long before American officials became involved. Anne LeMaistre, who directs the field office in Phnom Penh for Unesco, an agency that promotes cultural heritage, said that although Mr. Latchford had donated artifacts, she was bothered that his books featured so many lavish photos of Khmer masterworks that are owned privately by anonymous collectors.
One of the books, she said, is pretty much “the inventory of the missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.” She and others fault him for not telling Cambodia where the items are.
Mr. Latchford said it would “not be appropriate” to reveal the names of anonymous collectors.
Asked about the propriety of owning or knowing the whereabouts of so many extraordinary Khmer relics, Mr. Latchford said the items were in better hands than if they were somehow returned en masse to Cambodia.
“What is the monetary cost to Cambodia?” he asked. “Who is going to pay for repatriation? Where will it wind up? Rotting in some storage house? Who will pay for the conservation?”
Asked whether he would consider donating more of his collection in coming years, Mr. Latchford said he had promised as much to Cambodian officials. But he said, “While I’m alive I intend to enjoy what I have.”
Ralph Blumenthal contributed reporting from New York.”