The stolen Angkorian crown jewellery resurfaces in London. It has been found that a huge amount of Cambodian Angkorian crown jewelry, some of which dates back to the 7th century, turned up in London last summer.
British antiquities smuggler Douglas Latchford owned the things that were taken.
Experts say that most of the jewelry is new to them and that they are shocked that it exists.
The collection has been secretly brought back to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where it will be shown in the national museum.
Cambodia: Stolen Angkorian crown jewellery resurfaces in London
Latchford died in the US in 2020 while he was waiting to be tried. After he died, his family said they would give Cambodia the things they had stolen from him, but the authorities did not know what would be given back or how.
When Brad Gordon, the head of Cambodia's investigation team, went to London last summer, he was the first person from his country to see the jewelry. He told the BBC, "I was driven to an unknown place by a member of the Latchford family." A car with four boxes inside was parked in the lot.
"I felt like crying. I just thought - wow - the crown jewels of ancient Cambodian civilization packed into four boxes in the back of a car."
A big bowl is thought to be from the 11th century. It looks like it is made of solid gold, but hasn't been tested yet. Experts think it might have been used by Angkorian royalty as a rice bowl.
Experts think that one of the crowns is from before the time of Angkor and could have been made by craftsmen in the 7th century. Other things, like a small sculpted flower, are hard to explain. Experts just don't understand why or how it was made.
It's still not clear when or how the jewelry was stolen or how it got to London. Many of the items match stone carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat, which is on the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites. It is the biggest religious building in the world. It was started in 1122 as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, but it became a Buddhist temple over time.
During the time when France ruled Cambodia, Angkor Wat was looted a lot. But many of Cambodia's other temples were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge's rule in the 1970s and the years of violence that followed.
Sonetra Seng, an archaeologist, spent years looking at temple carvings to learn about Angkorian jewelry. She can finally hold the real thing. She says:
The jewelry proves what was on the carvings and what was rumored is really true. Cambodia was really, really rich in the past. Still, I can't believe it, especially since it's from one single collection found abroad.- Sonetra Seng
Some of the jewelry had surfaced before; Douglas Latchford included five items from the collection in a book titled Khmer Gold that he co-wrote with his collaborator, Emma Bunker, in 2008.
Khmer antiquities expert Ashley Thompson describes this book and two others as elaborate sales brochures, giving private collectors a taste of what was being sold illegally behind the scenes. She explained:
Publishing these materials, inviting other scholars to contribute, and comparing the items to museum pieces was a way of validating them and associating them with known materials already in museums and effectively enhancing their value.- Ashley Thompson
Ms. Thompson, a professor in South East Asian art at SOAS University of London, says it will take a long time for experts to piece together where the newly discovered jewelry really came from because the book contains so many half-truths.
"You certainly can't take for granted anything that is said about the provenance or the current ownership," she explained, as she flipped through the book and pointed to the way in which Latchford and Bunker described the ownership of the different pieces of jewelry. "Private Thai collection, private London collection, private New York collection, private Japanese collection, etc. You have to be very wary."
The Cambodian government thinks that there is still more Angkorian jewelry to be found. The Cambodians have proof from Latchford's emails that he tried to sell the collection in secret from a warehouse in north London as late as 2019.
We asked the Metropolitan Police in London if they were also looking into Latchford's friends in the UK. They wouldn't say anything, saying that they don't talk about people who are under investigation before they are charged with a crime.
The BBC went to Cambodia last year to meet looters who had turned into government witnesses.
They showed the BBC items they said they stole from temples and sold to Latchford. Investigators have found that some of these things are the same as museum pieces that are now in the British Museum and the V&A.
One of the women the BBC talked to at the time, who was called "Iron Princess," will also help figure out what some of the jewelry is.
Hun Sen, the autocratic leader of the country, will be glad to get the collection back for now. An election is coming up in July, and since his ruling party has effectively dismantled the opposition, this development will be painted as something Hun Sen has done to benefit his people.
Even putting politics aside, Cambodians want all the stolen things back. After being kept in dusty boxes for many years, these pieces of jewelry will soon be shown to the public in Phnom Penh.