LOWELL — U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the largest and most prestigious art museums in the world, is in possession of stolen art.
The Met’s Southeast Asian Art Gallery 249 contains 13 pieces that were sold to the museum by disgraced art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was charged in 2019 with wire fraud conspiracy and other crimes related to illegally selling stolen artifacts from Cambodia.
He died in 2020 before the DOJ concluded its case, so the indictment was dismissed.
Trahan is pressing the museum for an update on its internal investigation on the provenance of the artifacts, and she has set a deadline of May 25 for the Met to provide a public accounting of their findings.
“We’ve alerted the DOJ,” Trahan said by phone Thursday afternoon. “My request is very straightforward. I want the results of the Met’s internal investigation to be made public. I’ve asked for a thorough update on its investigation, a deadline to make a determination on the provenance of these artifacts, and a commitment from the Met to return the pieces to the people of Cambodia if they were stolen.”
The representative was named co-chair of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus in January, and said her work on the caucus is informed by the Cambodian-American residents in the 3rd Congressional District.
“I want the Cambodian-American people I represent in my hometown of Lowell, and all across the country, to see that the Met’s investigation isn’t going to fade away,” Trahan said. “I want them to see the Met promise in writing that if the artifacts are found to have been stolen, like over a hundred other artifacts acquired by Douglas Latchford were, that they’ll be returned to the people of Cambodia.”
The caucus sent a letter to Met President and Chief Executive Officer Daniel Weiss last November.
“What we got back from the museum was a really disappointing response that largely failed to answer some of the most basic questions,” Trahan said. “To me, the response read like the Met was trying to delay the conversation so that the news cycle passed, and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
In a statement, the Met said Weiss would be stepping down in June after leading the museum for eight years, but Trahan said the issue transcended executive leadership and reflected the values of the institution itself.
“Regardless of who is at the helm of the Met, the artifacts are in their possession,” she said. “Cambodian Americans deserve substantive answers as to (whether) these artifacts may have been stolen.”
And if so, she said, they “belong to the Cambodian people” and should be returned.
Leaders in the community such as state Rep. Vanna Howard and Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau support Trahan’s approach.
“Some of these items at the Met came from temples in the Angkor Wat,” Chau said in November. “They were never meant to be for sale. Anything from the Angkor Wat sites are clearly not legitimate no matter the nature of the transactions. These artifacts have spiritual and cultural significance.”
Trahan said she hopes that Weiss and the Met live up to its commitment to transparency and cultural respect. In 2013, under previous leadership, the museum voluntarily returned two Cambodian artifacts, which Trahan hopes guides Weiss’s efforts in his final days at its helm.
“Ultimately what we’re asking for is a commitment to transparency and honesty as they go about their investigation and we’re going to make sure that happens,” she said.