Asia Life | Society | Southeast Asia

Douglas Latchford: The Man Who Pillaged Cambodia

Latchford leaves behind a dark legacy of looting and cultural destruction, which will long outlive him.

By Tess Davis for
Douglas Latchford: The Man Who Pillaged Cambodia
Credit: Unsplash

Douglas Latchford, an English “adventurer” and antiquities collector once feted by royalty, died this month in Thailand — adding his name to a long list of villains who have escaped justice for crimes in the Cambodian Killing Fields. 

The public life Latchford cultivated over decades in the penthouses and cricket clubs of Bangkok seems far removed from the armed conflict and mass murder that long raged just over the Cambodian border. It wasn’t. Latchford died under a felony indictment, fighting extradition to the United States for masterminding an organized artifact trafficking network that directly linked art world elites with the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

Even today in a crowded global field, no single figure looms as large over a nation’s wholesale pillage. Experts are still uncovering the full picture, but their work has exposed Latchford as “a one-man-supply-and-demand” for Cambodian plunder during the kingdom’s decades of civil war, foreign occupation, and genocide. He laundered much of his loot (and the fakes he commissioned) onto the legitimate market — including American museums from coast to coast — but kept the greatest masterpieces for himself in a collection said to rival that of Cambodia’s National Museum. 

Born in the British Raj, Latchford journeyed to Southeast Asia in the 1950s, seeking his fortune. He was drawn to newly independent Cambodia, and especially its ancient past, believing himself the reincarnation of a legendary king. He became a familiar sight at the ruins, so abundant in sacred statuary that French explorers had praised them as “open-air museums.” Yet having guarded their sanctuaries for centuries, these precious gods vanished in Latchford’s footsteps. By the 1960s, local expatriates were calling him “Dynamite Doug,” for his preferred method of extracting buried treasures. 

If the story stopped there, Latchford may have been remembered as another colonial rogue, following the playbook of a bygone era. But everything changed in 1970 with the civil war, which would rage until the 1998 Khmer Rouge surrender. In the intervening years, communist insurgents murdered 2 million people, violence funded in part by a thriving illicit trade in timber, gemstones, and antiquities. In Douglas Latchford, they found not only a buyer, but a partner. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Latchford used money and threats to protect his monopoly and his reputation. Security at his luxury Thai condo rivaled that of embassies, guarded by a pack of young muscled men, who frequently lived and traveled with him. While investigating his network, I was told more than once to drop my inquiries. A Bangkok journalist, whom I tried to interest in the story, flatly refused, citing Latchford’s connections to the Thai military and the going assassination rate. 

Like many conmen, Latchford also used charm. He took great pains to paint himself as a “rescuer” of the kingdom’s heritage, giving his good and bad faith purchasers alike plausible deniability. He laundered his stolen goods through self-published tomes, which the Head of UNESCO Phnom Penh would later call “the inventory of the missing patrimony of Cambodia.” In these glossy pages, Latchford disguised illegal origins with false backstories, and likely physically modified works so they could not be traced (making it especially infuriating that some continue to praise his scholarship, since the historical record was one of his many casualties).

Latchford dedicated one volume to his biggest victim: “The Khmer people.” That inscription was followed by another irony: a foreword of gratitude from Cambodian leaders, wrongly leading some of Latchford’s apologists to claim the government condoned his pillage. To the contrary, Cambodian authorities fully supported his prosecution, and lead the region in fighting the illicit trade. But even if officials in Phnom Penh had suspicions earlier, unlike the art market, for years they had no choice but to cooperate. Latchford had a passport and protection from Thailand, a powerful neighbor. His collection was out of reach in Bangkok, in a heavily secured compound, with the most prized pieces even farther away in London. One misstep and it would be lost.

Now, despite the best efforts of the Cambodian and U.S. governments, this collection may still disappear forever into the black market. However, in the United Kingdom, as the United States, possession of stolen property is a continuing crime. So while Latchford’s death has ended his prosecution, it may yet enable that of others, for he did not act alone. Some art world leaders were enthusiastic co-conspirators. Others may have turned a blind eye. But many out there know where the bodies are buried and his art is hidden. Now it is time to speak up. 

Those who do not are — like Latchford — complicit in genocide. 

By recovering and returning the products of Latchford’s decades of crimes, we have an opportunity to right one wrong from the Killing Fields. We owe this not only to the Khmer people, but to the communities and countries suffering their same fate today. For as Cambodia’s story reminds us, the illicit trade in “blood antiquities” is funding crime, conflict, and terrorism around the world. And — as proved by recent revelations that Russian oligarchs are laundering millions through the American art market — the key perpetrators more closely resemble Douglas Latchford than the black-clad thugs of the Khmer Rouge or Islamic State.

Tess Davis, a lawyer and archaeologist, is executive director of the Antiquities Coalition. She has been a legal consultant for the Cambodian and U.S. governments.  In 2015, the Royal Government of Cambodia knighted Davis for her work to recover the country’s plundered treasures — including pieces looted and trafficked by Douglas Latchford.