It has been revealed that a sizable cache of Angkorian crown jewelry from Cambodia, some of which date as far back as the 7th Century, reemerged in London last summer.
The smuggled antiquities belonged to Douglas Latchford, a well-known antiquities trafficker.
The majority of the jewelry, according to experts, has never been seen before, and their presence is astounding.
The collection has been covertly transported back to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and will soon be put on display in the nation's museum.
In 2020, Latchford passed away while he was being tried in the US. After his death, his family promised to give Cambodia his stolen collection, but the authorities had no idea what would be given or how it would be done.
When he traveled to London last summer, Brad Gordon, the head of Cambodia's investigative team, saw the jewelry for the first time on behalf of his country. He stated to the BBC: "I was driven to an undisclosed location by a representative of the Latchford family. There was a car in the parking lot with four boxes inside.
"I wanted to cry. The crown jewels of ancient Cambodian civilization were contained in four boxes and were being transported in the trunk of a car, I just thought. ".
The resurfaced collection was discovered to contain 77 pieces of gold and jewel-encrusted jewelry, including crowns, belts, and earrings when it was all unwrapped. Although it hasn't been tested, a large bowl that is believed to be from the 11th century appears to be made of solid gold. According to experts, it may have served as a rice bowl for Angkorian royalty.
According to experts, one of the crowns appears to date from a time before the Angkorian era and may have been created by artisans as early as the seventh century. Unknown items include another small sculptured flower. Experts simply aren't aware of its intended use or motivation for creation.
It is still unknown precisely when and how the jewelry was taken, as well as how it got to London. Angkor Wat is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and many of the items can be compared to stone carvings found there. Construction on the largest religious structure in the world began in 1122 as a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but it later became a Buddhist temple.
Angkor Wat suffered significant looting while under French colonial rule. However, during the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s and the unrest that persisted for decades, many of Cambodia's other temples were pillaged.
Sonetra Seng, an archaeologist, spent years studying temple carvings to learn more about Angkorian jewelry. She can finally hold the genuine article.
"The jewelry demonstrates that the information on the carvings and the rumors are accurate. In the past, Cambodia was extremely wealthy, according to her. "Even so, I still find it hard to believe, especially since it came from a single collection discovered abroad. ".
Some of the jewelry had previously been discovered; Douglas Latchford and Emma Bunker's book Khmer Gold, which they co-authored in 2008, featured five pieces from the collection. This book and two others, according to Ashley Thompson, an expert on Khmer antiquities, are elaborate sales brochures that give private collectors a glimpse of what was being sold illegally behind closed doors.
She said that publishing the materials, asking other academics to contribute, and comparing the artifacts to museum pieces was a way to validate the materials, link them to well-known artifacts already on display in museums, and thereby significantly increase their value.
Because the book contains so many partial truths, according to Ms. Thompson, a professor of South East Asian art at SOAS University of London, it will take a while for experts to piece together where the recently discovered jewelry actually came from.
As she paged through the book and pointed to how Latchford and Bunker described the ownership of the various pieces of jewelry, she said, "You certainly can't take for granted anything that is said about the provenance or the current ownership.". Private collections from Thailand, London, New York, and Japan, among others, are all available. Be very cautious at all times. ".
More Angkorian jewelry may still be discovered, according to the Cambodian government. The Cambodians have proof from Latchford's email correspondence that, as recently as 2019, he was trying to covertly sell the collection out of a warehouse in north London.
If Latchford's associates in the UK are also under investigation, we enquired with the Metropolitan Police in London. They declined to respond, stating that they do not identify people who are being looked into before they are charged with a crime.
The BBC visited Cambodia last year to speak with thieves who had become government witnesses and who had identified the artifacts they claimed to have taken from temples and sold to Latchford. Investigators have matched some of those items to museum artifacts that are currently housed in reputable UK institutions like the British Museum and the Vandamp;A.
Iron Princess, one of the women the BBC spoke with at the time, will work to identify some of the jewelry.
Hun Sen, the autocratic leader of the nation, will for the time being be pleased to see the collection return. Since the opposition has been effectively destroyed by Hun Sen's ruling party, this development will be portrayed as something Hun Sen has done for the good of his people ahead of a July election. .
Putting politics aside, common Cambodians want all the stolen goods returned. It will soon be put on public display in Phnom Penh after spending decades hidden inside dusty boxes, giving this jewelry a second chance to shine.