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Looted Ancient Crown Jewels Discovered in ‘The Back of a Car’

Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP/ Getty Images
Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP/ Getty Images

Researchers in Cambodia knew that some of their country’s prized artifacts were missing. There were many stone carvings depicting unknown items on the walls of the incredible religious monument, Angkor Wat. As it turned out, the carvings were created in the likeness of recently recovered items that had been in the possession of a notorious art thief named Douglas Latchford.

Included in this incredible find are numerous pieces that scholars have never seen before.

Douglas Latchford

Douglas Latchford was both a legitimate art dealer and a smuggler. He was best known for his collection of Cambodian artifacts that he sold to museums around the world – and also kept for his own personal viewing. He made a habit of buying items directly from the farmers who discovered them, or from organized looters, believing that if he hadn’t then the precious artifacts would have been destroyed.

Sok An shaking hands with Douglas Latchford.
Cambodian deputy Prime Minister Sok An (left) shakes hands with British Khmer art collector Douglas Latchford (right) during a function at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, June 12, 2009. (Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Despite his questionable means of acquiring these items, Latchford was awarded a Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Monisaraphon in 2008 for financial contributions to Cambodia’s national museum. The following year, he returned several gold pieces to the country and was given a “friendship medal” in exchange.

In 2019, he went into a coma, around the same time he was charged by prosecutors in New York for falsifying details about imported Cambodian artifacts. Latchford died in 2020, and the case was dropped. At the time, his collection of 125 pieces was valued at a staggering $50 million.

Cambodian crown jewels

Following his death, the Latchford family agreed to return all of the items now in their possession. Brad Gordon was in charge of the Cambodian investigation team, and traveled to London to meet with a representative of the family. He recalled the experience to the BBC. “I was driven (…) to an undisclosed location. In the parking lot was a vehicle with four boxes inside.” In those boxes were a total of 77 artifacts, including a solid gold bowl, and a variety of crowns and other jewelry.

The collection certainly wasn’t what was expected, as only a few of the items were known to be in Latchford’s possession. Gordon was overwhelmed with emotion: “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.” One of the crowns was later dated to the seventh century by researchers, making it a major find.

Returned to the rightful owners

These items have now been secretly returned to the capital city of Phnom Penh where they will eventually be put on display in the national museum. The excitement of their return is somewhat dampened by the fact that no one knows how Latchford came to be in possession of these treasures. If they were once located at Angkor Wat, as some researchers believe, they may have been taken by French colonizers, or during the civil war of the 1970s.

Gold crown and matching necklace on display in a museum.
The gold and rock crystal Cambodian regalia that was returned to the National Museum in Phnom Penh by Douglas Latchford, May 26, 2009. (Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP/ Getty Images)

As impressive as these pieces are, Gordon and other Cambodian authorities believe that there are yet more to be discovered. They have access to a series of emails from when Latchford attempted to sell this collection in 2019.

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Government witnesses have also attested that Latchford sold even more artifacts to museums around the world, including the British Museum.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.