Family behind major gift to Brown University returns relics to Cambodia

The Lindemann family, whose name appears on the university’s new performing arts center, reaches agreement with U.S. Department of Justice

By: - September 12, 2023 2:40 pm

The family of the late George Lindemann returned antiquities dating to the 10th and 12th centuries that were originally looted from religious and archeological sites in Cambodia on Monday, Sept. 11, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. They included statues of, far left, Dhrishtadyumna from Koh Ker; top right, three of the Angkor Thom Heads; bottom right, Anantashayana Vishnu. (U.S. Department of Justice)

NEW YORK — The family whose name adorns a new multi-million dollar performing arts center at Brown University has voluntarily returned dozens of looted antiquities in their possession to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

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U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a press release Tuesday that the Lindemann Family returned 33 artifacts to the Southeast Asian nation on Monday, Sept. 11, as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The antiquities were among 65 officials say they have now successfully returned to the kingdom from individual owners since efforts began in 2012. 

For decades, Cambodia suffered at the hands of unscrupulous art dealers and looters who trafficked cultural treasures to the American art market,” Williams said. 

“This historic agreement sets a framework for the return of cultural patrimony in support of the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Cambodia. We thank the Lindemann family for their cooperation and assistance in the repatriation of the antiquities to Cambodia.”

The antiquities returned included: a monumental 10th century statue of Dhrishtadyumna stolen from Prasat Chen in Koh Ker, the ancient capital of the Khmer kingdom; statues stolen from Prasat Krachap in Koh Ker, including a 10th century sculpture depicting Ardhanarishvara (half-male, half-female deity) and a 10th century Anantashayana Vishnu (reclining Vishnu with Lakshmi); as well as six heads of devas (angels) and asuras (demons) removed from the gates to Angkor Thom in the Angkor Wat complex; and a kneeling figure from Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple in Angkor Wat.

Lindeman family matriarch Frayda Lindemann sits on the Brown University Board of Trustees. In October, Brown plans to open the Lindemann Performing Arts Center, a 101,000 square foot building named after the family following an undisclosed gift to the school. A full-day celebration scheduled for Oct. 21, will include musician Jon Batiste, violinist Itzhak Perlman and performing artists from Brown in a day of concerts, discussion, tours and a parade.

In March, the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE), started a campaign to draw attention to the Lindemann family’s alleged involvement in the looting of Cambodian antiquities. Many of the objects were obtained illicitly by antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020 while under investigation by the Department of Justice for antiquities theft.

“The artifacts are no mere objects,” said Mu Sochhua, a Cambodian political dissident and former member of parliament living in exile in East Providence. “They represent the spirit and soul of Cambodia.”

Brown University officials lead a tour of the Lindemann Performing Arts Center on Angell Street in Providence on June 20, 2023. The Lindemann will open with a full-day celebration on Oct. 21, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The items were obtained during and after the Cambodian Civil War and genocide — when over 2 million were murdered by the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime in an effort to return to Year 0; a mythological agrarian utopia of the past. The subsequent Vietnamese invasion and occupation, followed by over 30 years of dictatorship under Hun Sen, has led to a country with weak institutions where corruption is rampant.

“Anybody who believes in justice cannot just accept this,” Mu told Rhode Island Current in April. “At the end of the day, you looted these artifacts from a people whose soul was broken by the Khmer Rouge; and if you want to rebuild a nation, you start with its soul.” 

By returning the artifacts, Mu said the Lindemanns were showing the Cambodian diaspora the respect it deserves.

“The Lindemann family is honoring a national heritage and respecting the voices of the Khmer communities living outside Cambodia with their cooperation with the U.S. government.”

Brown University spokesman Brian Clark said the move did not represent any efforts on the part of the university.

“While Brown does not play a role in the activities or decisions of its donors, the University respects the Lindemann family for making a decision concerning this matter,” Clark said via email. “The arts world continues to navigate highly complex questions around the treatment of antiquities, and we recognize that these issues affect many individuals and communities locally and around the world.”

Chanda Womack, executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE), holds a candle and listens during a ceremony remembering the more than 2 million dead from the Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979 during a ceremony in the Providence City Council Chamber on April 9, 2023. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Chanda Womack, executive director of ARISE, applauded the Lindemanns’ decision. 

“As a Cambodian refugee who has not yet been able to step foot in my own country, the return of Cambodia’s belongings is meaningful beyond words,” she said in an email. “For me, it is about restoring the harm and reclaiming what is ours. I hope that this helps bring some level of solace to Cambodian communities across the globe. To the Lindemann family, this act symbolizes an apology and an intentional decision to no longer participate in the cultural genocide of the Cambodian people.”

But Womack said she was disappointed that Brown University and its president, Christina Paxson, took no role in calling for the artifacts’ return.

“An official, public statement from her would have been symbolic and encouraging even if the institution continues to hide behind a policy that seeks to justify the institutional harm you all have committed,” Womack said.

Frayda Lindemann and the Lindemann Charitable Foundation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.  


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.