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Cambodia's difficult journey to get stolen sculptures back from the Met

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A number of stolen sculptures are back in Cambodia after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return them. They're just some of the thousands of historical artworks believed to have been trafficked outside of Cambodia. Reporter Adam Hancock has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

ADAM HANCOCK, BYLINE: Welcomed home with a blessing. That's the sound of Buddhist monks chanting during a special ceremony to mark the return of 14 ancient Cambodian artifacts. These national treasures were looted during a dark period in Cambodia's history, with thieves capitalizing on the unrest caused by decades of civil war and genocide. Bradley Gordon, a legal adviser to Cambodia's government, has worked tirelessly to track down many of these stolen treasures, including this latest batch.

BRADLEY GORDON: These 14 went through one particular dealer named Douglas Latchford, who was based in Bangkok and was involved for 50 years in putting together collections of Cambodian antiquities and selling them to collectors and museums.

HANCOCK: Latchford was charged in 2019 in the U.S. with running a trafficking network. He denied the allegations before he died the following year. One of the biggest challenges Gordon faced was persuading the Met to return the stolen goods.

GORDON: It has taken years of going back-and-forth and a lot of assistance from the U.S. government and also from the media. And it's incredibly difficult to get them to this point where they've agreed to give back these 14.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

HANCOCK: The artifacts that are now back in Phnom Penh are deeply symbolic for Cambodians. I spoke with Thyda Long, an investigator who helped to find them.

THYDA LONG: It's not just the physical artifacts that they took with them, but it's other contexts of it's our culture, it's our history, and it's all gone. So being able to witness all the pieces coming back, it's amazing.

HANCOCK: Some of the looters who stole these artifacts were actually pivotal in ensuring their return, providing investigators with valuable information to help with their search.

LONG: To get them to switch sides and help us, it's healing for us, but I guess, in a way, it's also healing for them.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

HANCOCK: As these 14 artifacts begin a new chapter in Cambodia's National Museum, there could be even more to come from the Met. Here's Bradley Gordon again.

GORDON: There are another 49 that we have specifically requested to be returned. So we don't see this 14 as the end of the story. There are 49 more that need to come home.

HANCOCK: For NPR News, I'm Adam Hancock in Singapore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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