Douglas Latchford was charming. He presented himself as the “rescuer” of Cambodia’s heritage. He was respected by museums across the world for his donations of Cambodian cultural heritage and the scholarship he had so meticulously collected on each piece. He was so successful in this public persona he was awarded knighthood in the Royal Order of Saha Metrey Thnak Thib Badin for distinguished service to the King and people of Cambodia.
It was all a fraud.
As far back as the 1960s, locals knew that Latchford was illegally removing artifacts, dubbing him “Dynamite Doug” due to his preferred method of extraction. But the biggest boon to Latchford was the communist uprising in Cambodia in 1970. Latchford took advantage of the Cambodian civil war to almost single-handedly plunder Cambodia of its greatest treasures. And it wasn’t just Cambodia—he trafficked in looted items from Thailand and India. In Cambodia, he was aided by communist insurgents who needed funds for weapons. Several prominent items ended up in museums during a time when museums did not bother researching the provenance of the donated item or were willing to overlook questionable origins. Others ended up in the hands of private collectors. But the best pieces he kept for himself. The scholarship that so many praised turned out to be fraudulent as well. He used his works to create fake provenances and may have gone as far as to damage the looted items to make it difficult to determine their origin. Not only did these works obscure the origin of the looted pieces, they destroyed the historical record.
In November of 2019, the Southern District of New York announced that they indicted Latchford on five charges: conspiracy to commit wire fraud, substantive wire fraud, smuggling, conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, entry of goods by false statements, and one count of aggravated identity theft. Several of these charges carry significant jail time. The Southern District of New York was able to bring these charges due to Latchford’s activities in the State of New York. But because Latchford lived in Thailand, the US would have to extradite him. He was in the process of fighting that extradition when he died this month. The people of Cambodia, Thailand, and India will never see justice. Even more troubling is that Latchford’s “scholarship” identifies objects in private collections, and the location of Latchford’s own collection is unknown. While museums can return looted items from their collections, the items held in private collections, including Latchford’s will remain lost. It is likely that Latchford’s own collection will disappear into the black market. The lesson to be learned here is that scholars, museums, and the legal profession must ensure that people like Latchford are prosecuted as soon as reasonably possible. His looting activities were known as far back as the 1960s, and had the world actually listened to the Cambodians, the outcome might have been different. It took until 2019 to hold Latchford accountable, and it was clearly too late.