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  • A pair of 16th-century gilt bronze Bhairava masks, valued at $900,000, returned by the Met. (Photo: Consulate General of Nepal in New York)

    Trafficking in stolen art is a growing international problem and even the largest museums in the world often discover artworks in their collections that have nefarious origins.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the latest to step up and return 14 sculptures that allegely had been stolen from Cambodia and Thailand when both countries were wracked by war in the 1970s.

    Douglas Latchford, a well-known dealer when extensive ties to the museum was indicted for selling antiquities illegally in 2019. He died a year later.

    The museum said in a statement released today (Dec. 15) that it had been working “proactively” with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York to resolve claims by Cambodia and Thailand.

    “The Museum received new information about the sculptures that made it clear that the works should be sent back to their countries of origin.

    “The Met has been diligently working with Cambodia and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for years to resolve questions regarding these works of art, and new information that arose from this process made it clear that we should initiate the return of this group of sculptures,” said Max Hollein, the Museum’s Director and Chief Executive Officer, in the statement.

    The Buddha Shakyamuni from the Lost Arts of Nepal Facebook page. (Photo; Facebook)

    An investigative report published earlier this year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists asserted that the Met was housing as many as 1,000 allegely stolen artworks from Southeast Asia.

    Reporters reviewed the museum’s catalog and found at least 1,109 pieces previously owned by people who had been either indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes;  More than 300 pieces are or were recently on display. 

    Interpol, the inter-governmental agency that investigates international cime, says art thefts, particularly from war zones has been on the rise over the past decade.

    “Our world has witnessed a considerable increase in the destruction of cultural heritage due to armed conflict, the agency said in a statement.

    Standing Varuna, a stone 18th century relic from Nepal. It’s on the market at Waddngtons Auction in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Facebook)

    “This has been accompanied by the organized looting, illicit trafficking and sale of cultural objects that were an integral part of a country’s heritage, history and identity.”

    “We can’t see heritage protection in modern conflict as just a cultural issue; it is a security imperative.,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

    In May, 60 people were arrested across Europe and 11,049 stolen artefacts were recovered as part of a major international art trafficking crackdown across 14 Interpol member countries.

    Among the items recovered were 77 ancient books stolen from a monastery in Italy; a Roman marble bust of a woman recovered in Spain and more than 3,000 ancient coins, including 117 coins from ancient Rome, that were seized in Poland.

    Some 130 investigations are still continuing and more seizures and arrests are anticipated in the global investigation, the agency said.

    Interpol maintains a database of stolen artificates, and anyone can apply to become an authorized user “to check in real-time if an item is among the registered objects.” Click here for an application form.

    The Met, one of the world’s largest museums, agreed to repatriate Hindu and Buddhist religious artifacts that trace back to the Angkorian period in the ninth and 14th centuries.

    The Seated Bhairava, stolen from Hayagriva Bhairava Temple in Bungamati, Patan (Photo: Facebook)

    Among sigificant pieces are the bronze masterpiece The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Seated in Royal Ease (late 10th–early 11th century), and the monumental stone Head of Buddha (7th century). The latter is currently on view at the museum.

    In 2013, The Met voluntarily returned to Cambodia two objects known as the “Kneeling Attendants,” that also traced to Latchford.

    This move was described as “historic” by Cambodian officials and paved the way for other repatriations to that country and cemented the Museum’s strong and productive partnership with its cultural leaders, according to the museum.

    The Met recently announced a suite of initiatives related to cultural property and the Museum’s collecting practices.

    The effort includes a focused review of works in the collection; hiring provenance researchers to join the many researchers and curators already doing this work at the Museum

    The Met is also engaging staff and trustees and using The Met’s platform to support and contribute to public discourse on this topic. More information is available on The Met website.

    Beginning in the 1970s, the Met greatly expanded its South and Southeast Asian galleries, and Latchford, a dealer and scholar of Khmer antiquities, was integral to that effort, according to The New York Times.

    Earlier this month, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced that more than 2,500 items were recovered from a storage unit in New York owned by notorious international trafficker Subhash Kapoor.

    Kapoor is allegedly part of the Zeeshan and Zahid Butt trafficking network, which allegedly smuggled The Ten-Armed Durga Statue into New York.

    Kapoor, who is residing in India, faces extradition to the United States. He was indicted in 2019 for conspiracy to traffic stolen antiquities.