Within five years, James H. Clark, the Internet pioneer whose Netscape browser once dominated the market, spent an estimated $35 million, he recalled in an interview, buying dozens of antiquities from Cambodia and Southeast Asia, many which he used to furnish a penthouse in Miami Beach.
On Tuesday, federal officials announced that he had turned in a collection of 35 items now valued at much more than he paid after investigators convinced him they were all stolen and that he had been scammed by a dubious antiquities dealer.
Bronze goddess of motherhood with four arms and elongated earlobes. A massive seated elephant deity made of stone with a crown and a decorated trunk. The prow of the boat depicts a half-human bird of prey riding a mythical serpent.
Items that he greatly appreciated. Gone. Gone. Gone.
Investigators told him, Mr Clarke said, “my actions may inspire other people to do the same, but I’m not sure – it’s hard for people to turn down something they’ve paid for, but to me, why would you want to own something stolen ?
Mr Clark, who was only identified as a “collector” in court documents filed on Tuesday, was described by federal officials as the latest in a line of people detained by Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British art dealer who died in 2020. when he was charged. trade in antiquities.
According to investigators, Mr Latchford between 2003 and 2008 convinced Mr Clark to acquire the artifacts by providing him with “false claims and forged provenance documents designed to cover up the fact that the antiquities were the product of a robbery and then smuggled the antiquities into by deceiving customs documents.
Mr. Clark, 77, a former Stanford professor who co-founded Netscape Communications Corporation in 1994, said he decided to buy the sculpture and other relics after traveling to Cambodia, where he saw some of the glorious sites of the Khmer empire. including the 12th century temple complex at Angkor Wat.
“As a naive person,” he said, “I seem to have unknowingly acquired one of the finest private collections of Cambodian antiquities.”
Since the sale of his penthouse, Mr. Clark’s collection has largely been stored for the past 10 years in two vaults in South Florida, from which it was removed as part of a federal forfeiture that he did not contest.
He said he made his decision after reviewing emails, photographs and other evidence provided by federal agents who spent several years researching Mr. Latchford, who co-authored three books on Cambodian treasures that included images of some of Mr. Clark’s purchases. .
A list of items and charges against Mr. Latchford were included in a complaint filed by federal prosecutors in the US District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday. In a press release, federal officials noted the readiness of the “collector” to cooperate voluntarily and promptly.
Mr Clark said he became wary of Mr Latchford, who was recommended by an interior decorator, in 2008 when Mr Clark requested assurance of a museum-quality ‘beautiful’ female deity he was being offered for more than 30 million dollars.
“I wanted some Cambodian government to certify this thing, and he didn’t respond to these messages, and I ended up just saying, ‘Something’s wrong here – this guy is a bit of a scammer,’” recalls Mr. n Clark. “I kind of came to the conclusion that it was something illegal because he didn’t respond to those requests.”
The return of the items is part of Cambodia’s global effort to restore the many hundreds of Khmer-era pieces that once adorned the country’s outlying temples and shrines. Most of the items were looted during the years of the civil war and national upheavals that ravaged the country from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
A year ago, about six months after Mr. Latchford’s death, his daughter Navapan Kriangsak decided to return 125 items that he personally owned. In September, the Denver Art Museum turned down four Cambodian items received through Mr. Latchford and agreed to return them, while an anonymous private New York collector returned one item that was considered a national treasure. Cambodia is also demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art establish the origin of at least 45 items from its collection in Southeast Asia that it suspects have been looted.
Ferng Sakona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts of Cambodia, said she is delighted that Mr. Clark has partnered with the return and that the items could one day fill an entire wing of the new national museum. Advocate representing Cambodia, Bradley J. Gordon, added: “We are grateful to Mr. Clarke for his exemplary behavior in choosing to do the right thing and return these masterpieces. We hope this will be a role model.”
Mr. Clark was philosophical about losing money. “I am very happy that now they will be exhibited in a museum where people can appreciate them,” he said.
In their complaint, the officials outlined several methods used by Mr Latchford to deceive Mr Clark into believing the artifacts were legitimate. On several occasions, they say, he concocted documents that indicated that certain items, including a bronze seated Buddha and a standing statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu, were legally taken out of Cambodia in the 1960s or belonged to legitimate foreign buyers for decades.
In the case of the massive statue of the elephant god, or Ganesha, Mr Latchford said he was selling a “almost twin” statue that Cambodian authorities say is actually one of a kind: a 4,000-pound masterpiece. which was photographed and published by French researchers in 1934.
In an email touting this, Mr. Latchford led Mr. Clarke to believe that “the known published doppelgänger has disappeared” and that the alleged twin “will never be available again and is great”. Cambodian experts who have seen photographs of the sculpture purchased by Mr. Clarke say it is in fact a stolen original.
Prosecutors and Cambodian officials say Mr Latchford obtained the items sold to Mr Clark through a looting network that systematically looted them for decades and smuggled them through Thailand, where Mr Latchford lived.
Cambodian officials have said they will take into custody 28 items, many of which date back to the ninth century and the heyday of the Khmer Empire. The rest belong to India, Myanmar and Thailand, according to officials.
Given the value of the items, Mr Clarke said he wanted to make sure the evidence of robberies and illegal trade provided by government officials was compelling. He recalled a three-hour meeting with investigators in which he was shown several documents that convinced him.
“I should have been more suspicious,” he said, “and in the end I told them I didn’t want to be involved.”