Is Something Missing?

A home feature with consequences: A collector couple presents their home in a glossy magazine. But where are the artworks that were probably stolen from Cambodia?

Selfie amateurs know just as well as influencers or magazine editors that an environment curated for self-presentation only has its desired effect when compromising elements disappear from the image. Gone are the days when analog photos were retouched by hand; today, a few clicks in photo-editing software are enough to make the world look different. At a popular level, erasing trash cans or “photo bombers” from vacation photos is still harmless. It becomes criminal, however, when ancient Cambodian statues disappear — for instance, from a prominently exhibited private residence in which they probably never should have been in the first place.

This is what apparently happened in the palatial home of the couple Sloan Lindemann Barnett and Roger Barnett. The pair have furnished “the most beautiful home in America” for themselves. This is how Architectural Digest describes it in its American January 2021 issue, which dedicates a series of photos to the estate. One can see, among other things, the opulently decorated central courtyard that contains strange, inexplicably empty black pedestals. But they apparently were not empty when photographer Douglas Friedman snapped the pictures. Another version of the photo that the house’s architect had published on his website showed Khmer sculptures on the pedestals.

Heads of Gods and Demons

The Washington Post, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the organization Finance Uncovered conducted research and concluded that the Architectural Digest photo was Photoshopped. In response to inquiries, a spokesperson from the magazine explained that the statues were not shown due to “unresolved publication rights around select artworks.” What that is supposed to mean and who doctored the photo remain unclear. The Cambodian government suspects that the erased objects were the heads of god and demon statues stolen from a sacred site in the country during the civil war.

Their current owners remain silent, but it gets worse: Cambodian investigators say that they have identified some 20 additional important artifacts — all taken from Cambodia illegally — in the same magazine shown from 2008 in the house of Barnett’s parents, including billionaire George Lindemann. He has assembled one of the largest private collections of Southeast Asian art. The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which is conducting a global search for stolen pieces of its cultural heritage, made some discoveries in museums too, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The objects there had been donated by the notorious, now-deceased Douglas Latchford, infamous for his smuggling of Cambodian antiquities. The Pandora Papers revealed the extent of his large offshore network.

Dozens of works that passed through his hands are soon to be returned from museums to their country of origin. That is much more difficult to achieve with private collectors, who can fall back on the claim that they believed they were buying the objects legally. Tech entrepreneur James Clark was one who did just that — yet he is now returning Cambodian antiquities that he purchased from Latchford for hefty sums. He recognized that decking yourself out with looted works of art is really not great for your image.

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