In January, the government of Cambodia made an emotional statement thanking Julia Latchford (British-Thai) for her incredibly generous offer of cultural significance. Latchford agreed to donate her entire collection, which includes 125 antiquities dating back to Cambodia’s Khmer period. These were magnificent sculptures, bronze figurines, and gold statues she had inherited from her father, Douglas.

Phoeurng Sackona described Julia Latchford, Cambodia’s culture minister as “precious, selfless, and beautiful” and added that it was a magical feeling knowing they were coming back.

Behind the smiles and the adoration were the sad facts: Cambodia’s incredible cultural heritage, which dates back to the ninth century, was ruthlessly plunder, and then sold all over the globe.

Douglas Latchford was an influential figure in the Cambodian culture scene and was often hailed as a benefactor and expert. He was also accused of being a prolific dealer in stolen antiquities and was later charged with criminal offenses. Latchford, who was based in Bangkok, is said to have bought sculptures that he knew were stolen from Cambodia’s ancient sites. He then sold them through prestige dealers and auction houses in New York, London and other cities. The glory of Khmer heritage was found in many great museums and wealthy private houses. Now, the US government is helping Cambodia to return them.

Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang says that the key to rebuilding the country is the return of its historical records.

He said that Cambodia was still searching for her identity after French colonialism, war, and genocide over many decades. “Cultural heritage and religious heritage are a part of her identity, and all the pieces that have been ripped out must be put back together.”

Douglas Latchford’s long career raises many questions about how sacred heritage is returned to countries that have been looted. This has led to a thriving west. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalismists (ICIJ) leaked the Pandora papers to them. They reveal another aspect of Latchford’s empire: his use of trusts, offshore tax havens, and the transfer of his assets, including the Khmer antiquities to his daughter, in order to avoid being liable for inheritance tax in the UK.

The Guardian and ICIJ reviewed papers held by offshore service providers as part of a global investigation. These documents show that Latchford created two trusts in Jersey named after Hindu gods, the Skanda Trust and the Siva Trust. Julia Latchford, along with other family members, were beneficiaries. She was also a trustee for the Skanda Trust. Skanda Holdings Limited (PTC), a company registered in British Virgin Islands, was another trustee. Its directors were Douglas Latchford and Julia’s husband Simon Copleston.

According to the papers, Skanda Trust held accounts in offshore tax havens such as Rathbones, an investment and wealth management firm in Jersey.

Latchford, almost simultaneously with the Skanda Trust’s formation, credited the trust as the owner 80 Cambodian antiquities in a glossy book entitled Khmer Bronzes. The trust was not explained in detail. It was also not revealed that the trust was an arrangement for Latchford and his family. Khmer Bronzes, which was Latchford’s third book on Cambodian treasures, followed Adoration and Glory (2004, 2008) and Khmer Gold (2008).

The 2003 landmark agreement between the US and Cambodian governments committed them to tracing all looted heritage and pursuing its return. This effort was led by Homeland Security Investigations. In 2017, a New York antiquities trafficking unit was established to investigate stolen treasures.

Latchford was the first American legal action to be identified as a looter. This followed the suspension in March 2011 by Sotheby’s in New York of a proposed sale of the Duryodhana Bondissant, a 10th century Cambodian sandstone statue. The Duryodhana bondissant is alleged that it had been stolen from Prasat Chen’s temple in the 10th-century Khmer capital of Koh Ker. Latchford, who was alleged to have purchased the Duryodhana knowing that it had been looted in 1972, and then consigned it to Spink & Son in London. Then, he conspired to fraudulently obtain export licenses with Spink’s representatives.

In 2016, Latchford was again rocked when Nancy Wiener (a well-known New York gallery owner) was indicted and charged with possessing stolen property. Latchford supplied two 10th-century pieces. One was a Shiva statue valued at $578,000. (PS423,000), and the other was a bronze Buddha seated on a Naga throne that Latchford bought Wiener for $500,000.

Wiener pleaded guilty to the charges on 30 September. She admitted that she bought those figures from Latchford, knowing they were stolen, and then sold them with false provenance. She admitted that the Naga Buddha “appeared struck by an agricultural instrument”, which is a sign of illegal excavation, but she still sold it for $1.5m.

Khmer Bronzes featured a photograph of the Naga Buddha, which was attributed to Skanda Trust. Indictment stated that these books were used to falsify antiquities’ provenance and present them as legitimate. Brenton Easter, a special agent at HSI, stated that publishing a photograph of a looted antique is a common way to launder money.

Latchford’s 2004 book Adoration and Glory featured a cover featuring a photo of a Khmer statue, Shiva and Skanda, the gods of war. The US authorities claimed that the sculpture was taken from the Prasat Krachap Temple complex in Koh Ker by looters in September 1997. They also took 12 other important statues with them. Julia Latchford returned Cambodia with the five first pieces, Skanda and Shiva. Skanda on Peacock is another one of the masterpieces that the US seeks to seize from its current owner. Douglas Latchford is said to have purchased it for $1.5 million in April 2000.

Latchford, who was being interviewed in 2012 as the shadows began to cover him, claimed that he was a saviour and the Cambodian antiquities in his possession were in “better hands” than they would have been if Vietnam had not invaded and killed them through the 1980s. According to evidence from the ICIJ, Latchford still sold until 2018, making a huge amount of money.

Latchford was indicted in New York on November 19, 2019. Latchford was indicted on 25 pages for selling stolen property, smuggling and falsifying documents and other offenses relating to the purchase and sale of antiquities taken from Koh Ker. He was already terminally ill and incapacited at the time. He died in August of last year, so he did not have the opportunity to defend himself.

Although Julia Latchford was able to return all her possessions to Cambodia, the government of Cambodia responded graciously to her promise to return everything. However, she acknowledged that law enforcement authorities are still investigating her father’s estate which she inherited for proceeds of crime. Douglas Latchford’s investments including the Rathbones account were subject to a suspicious activity reporting in Jersey in 2016, which allows suspected money laundering to reach the relevant authorities.

Julia Latchford (50), responded to questions from the Guardian, and the ICIJ. She said that Simon Copleston and her were not subject to any investigation and had not been involved with the sale of antiquities during their time as part of the Skanda/Siva trust structures. She said that her father had given her “credible assurance” that the allegations against him were false during the period that the “inheritancetrust structure” held the collection of Cambodian arts and that it was closed in 2016. She was also comforted by Douglas Latchford’s “close relationship” with museums and the Cambodian authorities, as well as the fact that major European auction homes continued to sell Khmer antiquities.

She stated that she now knows from her recent research into his affairs and having access to information not available at the time (including the findings by law enforcement bodies), that he lied and concealed certain actions from my, in general, and in particular cases.

Since 2017, she has been having independent talks with the Cambodian government. Her promise to return all antiquities was part of a formal agreement that she had signed with Phnom Penh shortly before her father’s death. She also agreed to give his complete documentation, which includes an inventory of his sales as well as extensive evidence about the global trade in Khmer antiques.

Two US lawyers, Steven Heimberg and Bradley J Gordon, represented the Cambodian ministry for culture and fine art, led negotiations with her. Gordon states that their sole focus is the return of the heritage. This includes all 600 pieces in Latchford’s three books.

Gordon stated that “all of the sacred statues, and other antiquities, especially from the [ninth to 15th century] Angkor and pre–Angkor periods that have been taken from Cambodia, especially since 1970, have been taken out illegally.” The burden of proof lies with the owner. If anyone is asked, very few will be able, if at all, to provide proper permits and provenance.

Julia Latchford spoke out about the ongoing investigation into her father’s money. She said that she was aware of and willing to cooperate with authorities in the investigations relating to her father’s estate, proceeds of crime, and is committed to their resolution.

Douglas Latchford, according to her representatives, made significant money trading antiquities in south-east Asia pharmaceutical companies and property development. Julia Latchford also stated that she doesn’t consider all of his antiquities trading illegal. This suggests she doesn’t intend to return all the money he made from selling Khmer antiquities. She stated that she understood his collection, and still do so.

It is a dizzying task to trace the origins of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. This involves tracing across continents, taking in dealers, museums and an unknown number wealthy individuals who purchased pieces.

Uninitiated people might think that Latchford’s 2019 arrest sounded an alarm and that every person or organisation holding Khmer antiquities that could have been his might have checked their provenance. However, this has not been the case in general. Tess Davis (executive director of Washington’s Antiquities Coalition), who has done extensive research on Douglas Latchford, and Cambodian looting networks says that museums around the world have responded with “deafening silence” except for a few cases.

Christie’s purchased Spink & Son in 1993. A spokesperson for Christie’s said that they couldn’t discuss Spink’s past sales to Khmer relics, which are now in many museums. They also didn’t know if they were supplied by Douglas Latchford. When asked if they had any contact with the authorities, the spokesperson replied that Christie’s was actively involved in the repatriation illegally exported cultural property. She also said that Christie’s has been in touch with relevant governments and law enforcement agencies. We are unable to provide any details.

Five pieces Latchford donated to the British Museum are from Thailand. The museum has not received an official request for their return. The spokesperson stated that none of the 46 Khmer sculptures came from Latchford. All but two were clearly removed from Cambodia prior to 1970 and the museum has not been approached by the Cambodian government regarding them.

The detective work is still ongoing, and the slow process of reuniting the country with its treasures from the past that were ruthlessly looted.

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