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Cambodia seeks artifacts return from Britain

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-05-13 09:18

The government of Cambodia has written to British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to request the return of artifacts from the country held in British museums, which it claims were taken illegally.

In the letter, Cambodia's Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona said many significant items had "wrongfully ended up" in institutions including London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the British Museum, with some believed to have made their way there through the hands of British art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was facing prosecution over charges of smuggling and selling stolen items when he died in 2020.

The head of the Cambodian ministry's investigative team, Brad Gordon, told the BBC that the trade in these items, much of which happened when the country was ruled by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, could be considered a war crime, covered by articles of the Hague Convention.

"This was a time of conflict. The whole world knew it," Gordon said. "Large museums like the British Museum or the V&A, they shouldn't have accepted these pieces.

"We would say, for the majority of pieces, there is no export license, there is no permit. So these museums and these individuals are in receipt of stolen property and the stolen property needs to come back."

It is reported that the British Museum has around 100 Cambodian pieces, most of which are thought to be in storage.

The museum has one of the most highly regarded collections of cultural artifacts from around the world, built up over the past centuries, but in the modern era it has found itself involved in several disputes over pieces in its collection, and attempts to return to them to their homelands.

The sculptures known in the United Kingdom as the Elgin Marbles, and in Greece as the Parthenon Marbles, are at the center of a dispute between the two countries which has been going on for decades.

The British Museum also has a famous collection known as the Benin bronzes, taken from Nigeria more than a century ago. Earlier this year, the museum announced it would be willing to loan them back to museums in Africa after failing to agree a permanent deal.

The institutions have both said that they are transparent about the origin of the items in their collections, with the V&A adding that it welcomed "constructive dialogue" over the issue, and the British Museum saying it would consider requests "carefully and respectfully". Both institutions said that they would respond to the letter that has been sent.

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