HomeThai AmericanThailand celebrates return of looted statues from The MET

Thailand celebrates return of looted statues from The MET

Thai and American officials have recently celebrated the return of two golden statues illegally trafficked from Thailand by a British collector of antiques to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The reparation ceremony was held on Tuesday at the National Museum of Thailand in Bangkok, after years of conversation to return the sculpture and other artifacts that have also been stolen and trafficked overseas.

The two statues returned to Thailand are known as the “Golden Boy” and “Kneeling Lady”, both dated to the 11th century, and have spent the nearly last 30 years at the MET. The “Golden Boy” is a 51-inch tall statue said to represent the Hindu god Shiva, or Jayavarman VI, a king of the Khmer Empire. The “Kneeling Lady” is a shorter, 17-inch, kneeling female figure with her hands above her head in a Thai greeting posture.

U.S. ambassador to Thailand Robert F. Godec, described both statues as “major cultural symbols” and “symbols of Thailand’s rich heritage”, on his X account, further mentioning how both “have been repatriated thanks to the collaborative efforts of our two nations and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”.

Thai minister of culture, Sudawan Wangsuphakijkosol, said that both relics are “evidence of the prosperity of the land of Thailand in the past over a thousand years ago. and is classified as an extremely important national cultural heritage. It’s worth being proud of.”, she said on her X account.

Both statues have been linked to the late Douglas Latchford, a British smuggler and art dealer, who has been accused of running an antiques trafficking ring out of Southeast Asia. Latchford, who died in 2020, was indicted in 2019 for trafficking and internationally selling stolen Cambodian artifacts to auction houses and museums since the 1970s. Latchford denied any involvement until his death.

A woman in Northeastern Thailand claimed to have discovered the “Golden Boy” statue in the 1970s when she was digging for potatoes. She then took the artifact to Bangkok, where it was sold to a foreigner for 1.2 million bhat ($33,000).

“The Museum welcomes and takes very seriously any new information about objects in the collection and is dedicated to seeking resolutions as appropriate”, says the MET. The MET had previously returned relics to India and Nepal after acknowledging they were smuggled from ancient sites there

These two returned artifacts come at a time when many museums in North America and Europe handle the scrutiny of collections that contain works looted from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere during times of turmoil and colonialism.

In this case, the looting of many Cambodian archaeological sites occurred during the mid-1960s and early 1990s, when the country was experiencing outbreaks of civil war and upheaval, with sites in neighboring Thailand also being the victims of traffickers. Many Southeast Asian governments have been trying to recover thousands of items that have been looted or tracked from their lands, but this process has been marred with legal and logistical hurdles.

“We are honored to get these artifacts back, they shall be located in their motherland permanently”, said the director-general of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department, Phnombootra Chandrachoti, at the reparation ceremony. He later added that “the effort of returning looted objects doesn’t end here, we aim to get them all back.”, in a news conference.

The two statues are part off 16 sculptures expected to be returned to Cambodia and Thailand by the MET, which they announced in a statement last December. The MET and the Kingdom of Thailand also signed a memorandum in February “formalizing a shared commitment to collaborate on exchanges of art, expertise, and the display and study of Thai art.”, as well as discussing cultural property.

“We are continuing to investigate the wide-ranging trafficking networks that … target Southeast Asian antiquities”, said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in April, while announcing that 30 looted artifacts will be returned to Indonesia and Cambodia. “There is clearly still much more work to do.”

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