U.S. prosecutors said on Thursday that they were attempting to return a 10th-century sculpture that they claimed had been stolen from Cambodia in 1997.
The statue comes from the site of Prasat Krachap, a temple in Koh Ker, which was the capital of the Khmer empire between 928 and 944 C.E. It depicts Skanda, the Hindu god of war, atop a peacock. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York noted that Skanda was rarely depicted in Cambodian art.
In a lawsuit filed on Thursday in the Federal District Court of New York, prosecutors called the work “a masterpiece of Khmer art and a significant part of Cambodian cultural heritage.” The suit was filed in rem, or against the statue itself, which is currently in the possession of the Department of Homeland Security.
In their complaint, prosecutors claimed that the statue had at one point passed through the hands of dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020 and was accused of trafficking stolen artifacts. (Though, he repeatedly denied the allegations.) Latchford’s daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, promised earlier this year to return at least 100 stolen artifacts to Cambodia, which is planning to expand a museum in its capital, Phnom Penh, to accommodate them.
Cambodian authorities were made aware of the alleged theft in 2020, when an unnamed looter accompanied them to Prasat Krachap to show the authorities where the statue had been taken from. The looter told them that a broker, who was also unnamed in the suit, sold the work to Latchford. Latchford then allegedly sold the work to a New York–based buyer for $1.5 million. It was then inherited by another owner, who relinquished it to U.S. authorities.
“Skanda on a Peacock is a work of great historical, religious, and artistic significance to the people of Cambodia,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement. “With this action, we reaffirm our commitment to ending the sale of illegally trafficked antiquities in the United States, and begin the process of returning Skanda on a Peacock to its rightful home.”