Ancient Cambodian Sculptures Reportedly Airbrushed From ‘The Most Beautiful House in America’ Photoshoot

A photoshoot of a $42million mansion in San Francisco dubbed the ‘most beautiful house in America’ appears to have helped locate a number of ancient Khmer carvings which the Cambodian government says match those looted years ago from one of the country’s sacred sites.

The owners of the opulent property are lawyer Sloan Lindemann Barnett, who is the daughter of the late billionaire art collector George Lindemann, and her husband, Roger Barnett.

One of the plans included in the Architectural Summary spread out in January 2021 shows a two-story central courtyard populated by towering palms and, to one side, several empty plinths. However, it emerged that the photograph had been doctored after reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) discovered another version of the image online, which shows several stone artifacts of demon heads and gods standing on the same pedestals.

According to ICIJ, experts have confirmed that the sculptures were indeed retouched from the magazine photograph, although it is unclear by whom and why. Erin Kaplan, spokesperson for Architectural Summarytold ICIJ that the magazine published the image without the relics due to “unresolved publishing rights regarding certain artwork”.

Lindemann Barnett and her husband did not respond to ICIJ’s requests for comment, and could not be reached immediately by The arts journal.

However, their sculptures seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. The Cambodian government is reportedly investigating a larger collection of Khmer relics held by Lindemann Barnett’s parents, described in a Architectural Summary article in 2008 as “one of Southeast Asia’s greatest art collections in private hands”. Photos of their Palm Beach home showed numerous Khmer antiquities, believed to be valued at more than $40 million, including two that closely resemble those among Cambodia’s ten most important stolen relics.

Bradley J. Gordon, an American lawyer with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, recognized one of the coins as depicting the Hindu deity Vishnu. The Cambodian government believes it was stolen from a temple that may be the royal tomb of King Jayavarman IV’s family. “This is easily one of the most significant statues in the temple, and probably in all of Koh Ker,” Gordon told ICIJ. “Having this in their collection, the Lindemanns essentially [had] the Cambodian equivalent of a sarcophagus stolen from the tomb of King Tut sitting in their living room.

Lindemann Barnett’s mother, Frayda Lindemann, did not respond to requests for comment from ICIJ reporters and the Lindemann family has not been accused of wrongdoing.

While the role of Western museums in acquiring artifacts of uncertain origin has received increased attention in recent years (the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles are among those which returned certain relics), the role of private museum collectors in the potentially illicit trade in antiquities is less well reported. According to the ICIJ, to date the Cambodian government has tracked more than 2,000 allegedly looted Khmer relics from museums and private collectors around the world.

Among the most prolific was British-born antiques collector Douglas Latchford, who was the subject of an ongoing US investigation into alleged trafficking. Latchford was charged in 2019, but died in 2020, thus closing the case against him. Earlier this month, 30 cultural objects related to Latchford were repatriated to Cambodia.

“This is a systemic problem” in the art market, according to Domenic DiGiovanni, a former US Customs and Border Protection agent. He thinks dealers and collectors have little incentive to stop buying looted art – as he tells ICIJ: “Having to give something back is just the cost of doing business.”