Dark art: Tracing Cambodia’s ‘looted’ Treasures
The January 2021 issue of Architectural Digest featured a remodelled, $42 million San Francisco residence described as a Spanish Renaissance Revival palacio.
Owned by a billionaire’s daughter and her husband, the home is “theatrical” and has “been described, with good reason, as the most beautiful house in America,” the luxury magazine said.
Accompanying photos detailed its opulence — mirrored pilasters, walls panelled with white onyx, remarkable views of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.
One particularly impressive image showed a two-storey central courtyard with several empty pedestals off to one side. The pedestals weren’t actually empty, though: The photo had been altered. Another version of the same photo, discovered by reporters on the website of the home’s architect, shows ancient Khmer sculptures resting on the same pedestals.
The Cambodian government says those stone relics, depicting the heads of gods and demons, match a set that was looted years ago from one of the nation’s sacred sites.
It is not clear who modified the photo or for what reason, but experts interviewed for this story concluded that the sculptures had been edited out of the magazine image.
The owners of the San Francisco mansion are lawyer and author Sloan Lindemann Barnett and her husband, Roger Barnett, an executive at a nutritional supplements company. The couple did not respond to email and phone messages from reporters.
The Cambodian investigation into the family’s collection goes beyond one set of statues. The stone artefacts in the San Francisco home appear to have come from a larger collection of Khmer relics held by Lindemann Barnett’s billionaire parents, Frayda and the late George Lindemann.
The parents’ collection appeared in an earlier Architectural Digest spread, in 2008, described as “one of the greatest collections of Southeast Asian art in private hands.” Those photos show their Palm Beach, Fla. home crowded with Khmer antiquities, many of which the Cambodian government suspects were looted. Two of them appear to match artefacts that rank among the country’s 10 most important stolen relics, the government says.
“Some of these statues are of enormous historical and cultural importance to Cambodia and should be repatriated as soon as possible," said Phoeurng Sackona, the country’s minister of culture and fine arts, who is leading the nation’s efforts to reclaim thousands of lost artefacts.
“It’s not just art,” said Sopheap Meas, an archaeologist working with the Cambodian team. “We believe that each of these holds the souls of our ancestors.”
Agents from the antiquities unit at the US Department of Homeland Security have contacted the Lindemann family in recent years about its Khmer collection, and there is no indication that the family plans to return the statues, according to two people close to the efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the work is ongoing.
The Lindemann family has not been accused of wrongdoing related to the artefacts. Frayda Lindemann did not respond to messages from reporters.
The discovery of the altered photo is part of a wider investigation by Finance Uncovered, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Washington Post into the fate of thousands of relics linked to looters and art traffickers. As The Post and ICIJ previously reported, many of those treasures can be found in the collections of esteemed Western art museums.
The new reporting sheds light on the role of private collectors who acquire ancient items of uncertain origin and the opaque world of antiquities trading.
Once out of their home country, stolen artefacts can be difficult to repatriate. With limited means to compel their return, authorities in victimised countries are largely reliant on help from law enforcement in the United States and other nations where the items end up. But such investigations are costly, are often seen as a low priority for overworked agencies and rarely lead to convictions, in part because owners may say they purchased the looted works unknowingly.
“This is a systemic problem” in the art market, said Domenic DiGiovanni, a former US Customs and Border Protection officer specialising in antiquities. There is little incentive for dealers and private collectors to stop buying looted art, he said, and “having to return something, that’s just the cost of business.”
Asked about the edited image, Erin Kaplan, spokesperson for Architectural Digest, a Condé Nast publication, said by email that the magazine published a photo that did not show the relics because of “unresolved publication rights around select artworks.” Kaplan declined to say who altered the photo or clarify her comment about unresolved publication rights.
II. Ancient Temples, Wealthy Collectors
Koh Ker Temple, Cambodia, the target of heavy looting since the 1970s. Photo: Kim Hak
The ancient temple complexes of Cambodia are recognised as extraordinary feats of ancient engineering and art. Three are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and seven more have been tentatively added to the list.
For Cambodia, antiquities have economic as well as cultural value. In the year before the pandemic, tourism accounted for 18.7% of the nation’s GDP growth, according to World Bank statistics, much of it spurred by visits to the historic temples.
Yet nearly all of the major temple sites have been subject to pillaging, with a particularly destructive wave beginning in the 1970s, during the country’s civil war and genocide, when they were ransacked by organised networks associated with military groups.
While no one knows how many artefacts were stolen during this tumult, archaeologists believe thousands passed through dealers and wound up in museums and the private collections of some of the world’s wealthiest people.
To bring the Khmer treasures home, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has assembled a team of about 40 researchers, archaeologists, lawyers and art scholars. The effort is led by Phoeurng and Bradley J Gordon, an American attorney for the ministry.
So far, the Cambodian team says, it has tracked more than 2,000 allegedly looted Khmer relics to museums and private collectors around the world.
The next step is persuading the holders of the antiquities to return pieces they’ve acquired. Authorities say that may prove more difficult, especially when a collector has purchased them for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.
Collectors should be required to prove that they have legal possession of their artefacts, the Cambodian authorities say, because the government has never issued export permits for Khmer sculpture — though in a few rare cases, Cambodian kings have given them as gifts.
To support their claims, Cambodian investigators have gathered information from former looters, archaeological excavations, and critically, from the computer files left behind by Douglas Latchford, a British antiquities collector. Prosecutors say Latchford was a key middleman between temple looters and wealthy collectors in Western nations. Investigators have shared some of his files with the reporting team.
Douglas Latchford (R) at National Museum of Cambodia, 2009, with then deputy Prime Minister Sok An. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty
For decades, Latchford presented himself as a scholar, benefactor and devotee of Khmer art, but he was indicted in 2019 for what US prosecutors allege was his leading role in the ransacking of Cambodian sites.
Last year, ICIJ and The Washington Post traced dozens of Latchford-linked items to museums, galleries and private collectors. The Pandora Papers investigation also revealed offshore trusts that Latchford used to hold money and art.
Latchford died in 2020, effectively closing the case against him, and never responded publicly to allegations, as far as reporters could determine. But continuing investigations into antiquities he allegedly trafficked have opened a view into the secretive world of private collectors.
Billionaire Jim Clark, the co-founder of Netscape, an early web browser, offered rare insight into Latchford’s dealings in an interview with ICIJ and The Post this year.
Clark said he was vacationing in Southeast Asia about two decades ago when he was smitten by Khmer artworks. He paid Latchford about $35 million for dozens of pieces, he said. Cambodia’s culture ministry would later say that Clark’s collection was so important that it could fill an entire wing in the country’s national museum.
“I was freshly wealthy,” Clark said in the interview. “I was a bit naive. In those days, I just thought: ‘Wow this is cool stuff – I’ll buy it for my apartment.’ ”
Latchford’s dignified manner made it easy to trust him, Clark said.
“I always assumed that he was a well-regarded expert because he had published these books and he had documents from the Cambodian government honouring him,” he said.
Clark displayed the pieces in a Miami Beach penthouse he owned for a few years before moving them to a Palm Beach storage unit, where they remained for more than a decade.
“I kept wanting to bring parts of it out,” Clark said of the collection. But “the decorator we’d use for any place we had, he wasn’t excited about it.”
Last year, US authorities working with the Cambodian recovery team approached Clark about relics in his collection believed to have been stolen. He voluntarily surrendered dozens of pieces that he’d acquired through Latchford. Clark was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Getting Khmer pieces back is seldom so easy, however, even when the Cambodian investigators can trace the history of the missing artworks.
III. Tracking Khmer Treasures: A Tip and ‘Jungle Cat’
The Cambodian investigation into the Lindemanns began with a tip.
Four years ago, one of Latchford’s business associates sent an email to Gordon, the American attorney working with Cambodian investigators. The email contained photos from a 2008 issue of Architectural Digest of a “dazzling” $68.5 million Palm Beach mansion. The magazine did not name the owners, but it was the home of Sloan Lindemann Barnett’s parents, George and Frayda Lindemann, then prominent figures in the art world, according to property records and news accounts.
Photos of the interior revealed an extensive collection of Khmer antiquities, valued at $40 million or more, according to experts. From the photos, Cambodian investigators identified more than 20 statues that they suspect were looted.
The owners had designed a home that reflected the architecture of Southeast Asia, the magazine said. According to the article, the owners believed there was “karmic justice to installing their ancient stone warriors and divinities in an environment that recalled their birthplace.”
Khmer sculptures adorn Frayda and George Lindemann's opulent mansion living room, 2008 Architectural Digest. Photo: Scott Frances
Cambodian investigators soon came upon a long-time antiquities broker who they say became a key witness in their investigation of the Lindemann collection.
A slight, restless Cambodian man with — in his own words— “the smile of a tiger,” the antiquities broker acknowledged in an interview that he had been, essentially, an accomplice: Years ago, he claims, he helped transport a number of the allegedly looted pieces that appeared in the Lindemann living room to one of Latchford’s main suppliers. He also brokered deals involving looted antiquities and has helped in a US antiquities investigation, Gordon said. The broker spoke to reporters for this story on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety. Cambodian investigators use “Jungle Cat” as a code name for him.
Several of the artefacts in the Palm Beach villa had been looted, the antiquities broker claimed.
“I loved this one the moment I saw it,” he said, gesturing to an image in the 2008 Architectural Digest photo spread.
He was pointing to a photo of a statue of a Hindu deity, Vishnu, in a reclining position. The figure lay across a stone platform, atop a snake, with its feet extended into the lap of a smaller, headless female figure representing his wife, the goddess Lakshmi. The Cambodian government says the statue was stolen from a temple that they believe may be the royal tomb of the family of King Jayavarman IV, who ruled an empire that included present-day Cambodia and Laos more than a thousand years ago.
The tomb was located in Koh Ker, a former Khmer capital renowned among art scholars and thieves for its artworks. Master artisans carved larger-than-life sandstone sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses to adorn the city’s sprawling temple complexes. According to local custom, each of these statues has a soul, and for centuries worshipers went to the temples to make offerings and pray.
“It’s easily one of the most important statues in the temple, and probably all of Koh Ker,” Gordon said about the Vishnu figure. “By having this in their collection, the Lindemanns essentially [had] the Cambodian equivalent of a sarcophagus stolen from King Tut’s tomb sitting in their living room.”
The statue was torn from its temple in the late 1990s by a criminal group run by a former Khmer Rouge soldier and then placed in an ox cart, wheeled 50 kilometres to a nearby town and transferred to a military truck, the broker claimed. At the Thai border, one of Latchford’s main suppliers bought the statue, he added.
Among the other pieces that the broker recognised from the 2008 feature on the Lindemanns’ Palm Beach home were the same stone sculptures of demon and god heads photographed years later in their daughter’s San Francisco mansion.
Another of the statues in the 2008 feature is so significant that the Cambodian national museum in Phnom Penh displays its empty pedestal.
The sandstone work represents Dhrishtadyumna, a celebrated warrior. It was part of a nine-statue set depicting a pivotal fight scene from a Hindu epic, scholars say. Most had passed through Latchford to prominent museums and auction houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and Sotheby’s, and have been returned.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this statue to Cambodia,” Gordon said. “It belongs in the national museum.”
IV. Reappearing demons and gods
George Lindemann was born in 1936 to a Manhattan-based family that was amassing a small fortune from the New York-based cosmetics company, Nestle-LeMur. Lindemann eventually took over his father’s business empire and expanded the family’s wealth by investing in an array of businesses that included gas pipelines, cable television, early mobile phone carriers and Spanish-language radio stations.
As Lindemann made his first billion, he and his wife Frayda were becoming known as major forces in the art world, with a growing collection of German expressionist paintings and masterworks of avant-garde furniture including a coffee table valued at more than $300,000.
George and Frayda Lindemann, May 2010 (Photo: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan/Getty)
It’s not clear when they became interested in Khmer art, but they travelled in 1997 to Southeast Asia, where they socialised with prominent figures in the region’s antiquities trade, according to Latchford’s files.
A photograph from that trip — also found in Latchford’s files, accompanying a friendly email addressed to Frayda — shows the couple posing in front of palm trees and blue sky in a group that included Latchford and Martin Lerner, the Southeast Asia curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shortly after that trip, the Lindemanns donated two Khmer statues to the Met. According to the Cambodian investigators, a former looter said he had stolen the two pieces and sold them to one of Latchford's main suppliers. Both statues remain in the museum's collection.
The Met has said that it is “in active dialogue with Cambodian representatives” and has shared information aboutthe statues’ origins.
“Our museum has a long history of evaluating cultural property claims, and where appropriate returning objects based upon rigorous evidentiary review,” Kenneth Weine, a Met spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
Lerner, who retired from the museum almost two decades ago, said the trip to Southeast Asia was not sponsored by the museum but that he had encouraged the Lindemanns to donate the works. He described one of the statues as a minor work of “modest monetary value” and the other as being of interest mainly to scholars.
While Lerner said he doesn’t recall the history of the pieces, “they could have passed through Latchford’s hands. That in itself does not necessarily mean they were ‘looted,’” he said by email. “In their own ways, the two sculptures expand the scope of the Met’s Southeast Asian collections."
George Lindemann died in 2018. The family’s Palm Beach home was demolished in recent years after hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin purchased the property.
It is unknown what has happened to most of the Khmer antiquities that were photographed inside, but at least some of the items appear to have been passed on to the family’s next generation.
In 2011, Sloan Lindemann Barnett and her husband purchased their 17,000-square-foot mansion in San Francisco. To revamp the property, they hired Peter Marino, a noted architect who had also designed George and Frayda Lindemann’s Palm Beach house.
A photo of the remodelled San Francisco home, posted to a page on the architect’s website as an example of his work, shows a set of Khmer god and demon heads in the mansion’s airy courtyard.
According to the antiquities broker dubbed Jungle Cat, the heads appear to come from a set that he sold to Latchford’s main suppliers based in Thailand. They had been hacked from the bodies of demons and gods standing on either side of a road leading to Angkor Thom, the capital city of a once-mighty empire that fell more than five centuries ago, he said.
Figures of demons and gods, similar to those shown in Lindemann homes, on road leading to Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo: Piera Marlena Büchler/Alamy
Files from Latchford’s computer, obtained by Cambodian investigators, included an email to a colleague with a photograph of what appears to be those same heads, labelled “Lindemann Angkor Thom heads.” The email noted that “these were all stolen.” There is no indication that the Lindemanns were aware of the email or had knowingly purchased looted relics.
Angela S Chiu, an independent art scholar, examined the version of the photo of Lindemann Barnett’s courtyard that shows the relics. Chiu said two of the heads appear to match those that Latchford said were stolen and the other two, obscured by palm fronds, are “possible matches.”
When that photo ran in the January 2021 issue of Architectural Digest, its caption mentioned “Southeast Asian sculptures,” even though none are apparent.
Hany Farid, a visual forensics expert at the University of California at Berkeley, examined the two versions of the photographs.
“These two images are clearly derived from the same source image,” Farid said.
Farid noted, among other things, that bits of leaves were missing in the published photo.
“There are small but consistent signs of air-brushing around the plant leaves in which small parts of the plant were air-brushed out along with the statues,” Farid wrote in an email. “It seems highly unlikely that two photos would be taken in succession without anything else in the entire room moving.”
The image is credited to photographer Douglas Friedman, whose website describes him as “a darling of the young international social set”. He did not respond to requests for comment sent to his agent. There is no suggestion that Friedman was guilty of any wrongdoing.
Marino’s architectural firm said in a statement that it did not provide the photo to Architectural Digest. In mid-July, after reporters sent Marino a request for comment, the courtyard photo and others showing relics disappeared from his website.
V. Uphill Battle
Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia minister of culture, National Museum, Phnom Penh, inspects Khmer statues returned by US collectors. Photo: Kim Hak
Persuading museums and private collectors to return items for which they paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars is an uphill battle.
The first option for countries seeking to recover antiquities is simply to ask for and negotiate their return, according to lawyers familiar with such cases. That approach, however, typically works better with museums than with private collectors.
“Institutions have to consider the press and public scrutiny” that could come with refusing to cooperate, said Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer who specialises in art and cultural heritage cases. “It’s different with private collectors.”
Another option for foreign governments seeking the return of antiquities held in the United States might be to sue in federal court, lawyers said, but foreign governments often shy away from such tactics because of the complications and legal costs, especially when they are facing wealthy collectors.
“The governments are at a disadvantage because they can’t outspend the collectors,”
said Amineddoleh, who has represented Greece and Italy in their efforts to repatriate looted items. “Their budgets often don’t cover expensive litigation in the United States.”
Cambodia, like many other countries seeking the return of artworks, has chosen a third option: asking US authorities to intervene. The United States is one of the few countries with an office dedicated to combating the illicit trafficking of antiquities.
Jim McAndrew, a former DHS senior special agent and expert in art and antiquities thefts, said that when US authorities pursue such cases, they first ask for evidence that the items were looted. That would mean reviewing documentation and archaeological data and interviewing key witnesses, such as the antiquities broker who is helping investigators. The next step would be to seek information from current and former owners of the antiquity.
Even with solid evidence, though, winning a case in federal courts can take years, partly because records establishing the origins of an antiquity are often incomplete or vague.
McAndrew, now a consultant whose clients include dealers and others who handle antiquities, emphasised that well-meaning collectors can make mistakes.
He noted that even renowned institutions — like the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles — have returned some relics.
“I tell my clients, even if you see something really beautiful, if it doesn’t have enough information, just walk away,” McAndrew said.
And if you have something that turns out to have been taken illegally?
“Give it back.”