The ceremony was attended by Vietnamese Ambassador to the UK Nguyen Hoang Long, United States Special Agent JP Labbat, US Special Agent Robert Mancene of Homeland Security Investigations (HIS), Tim Hemker, HSI representative of the US Embassy in the UK, along with UK detective Sophie Hayes.

According to the official website of the US’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s mission (ICE), the US filed and settled a civil forfeiture action against US$12 million derived from the sale of stolen Southeast Asian antiquities by UK indicted antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford.

“The settlement with Latchford’s estate, who died in 2020, resolves claims that he transferred proceeds from the sale of stolen antiquities to bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey. As part of the settlement, Latchford’s estate has also agreed to the forfeiture of a seventh century bronze statue depicting the four-armed goddess Durga, which is alleged to have been stolen from Vietnam in 2008 and which Latchford allegedly purchased using tainted funds,” said the website.

It added that in both 2008 and 2009 Latchford used funds derived from the sale of stolen and smuggled antiquities to purchase the four-armed goddess Durga.

Relevant documents show Latchford traveled to Vietnam in November 2008 to get the piece and instructed his bankers to send around US$2 million to the bank account of a person with a Vietnamese email address.

Three months later, he then emailed a dealer a photograph of the statue lying on its back, covered in what appears to be dirt and minerals indicative of a recent excavation.

The four-armed goddess Durga statue, about 2m in length and 250kg in weight, was recognised by UNESCO as world heritage, and was stolen from the My Son Sanctuary in Vietnam’s central province of Quang Nam in 2008.

“Latchford identified My Son — a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site located in Vietnam — as the location where the Durga statue was recovered,” the website stressed.

“Under the settlement, Latchford’s daughter consented to forfeit the US$12 million and the Durga statue,” it added.

Immediately after receiving information from the Vietnamese Embassy in the US, the Vietnamese Embassy in the UK contacted British authorities regarding the statue.

On August 8, it worked alongside the London police to discuss procedures in an attempt to return the bronze statue back to Vietnam.

On August 16, the Vietnamese Embassy in the UK worked alongside representatives of the statue’s current owner, storage and transportation companies, along with archaeological experts to work out a plan on sending the piece to its home country.

At the handover ceremony, Ambassador Long thanked HSI and the London Police for their support. He emphasised that the return of the statue took place on a special occasion when Vietnam and the UK are celebrating 50 years of their diplomatic ties this year. In addition, he said Vietnam and the US have just upgraded ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Peace, Cooperation, and Sustainable Development.

“The event will contribute to deepening the relationship between the parties,” he stressed.