The United States government has entered the fray of an international art scandal relating to four Cambodian antiquities that federal prosecutors say were looted and sold to the Denver Art Museum, where they were displayed for years.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a civil complaint in federal court Monday, seeking the forfeiture of four Cambodian antiquities that were sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford — a now-deceased art dealer who was charged two years ago with a host of crimes associated with the pillaging and illegal selling of ancient artifacts.
The Denver Art Museum “voluntarily relinquished possession of the antiquities,” the Department of Justice said in the complaint, and museum officials said they “welcomed today’s announcement.” The museum, however, said the “works are still in the care of the museum until the next step of the process to transfer them.”
“Ensuring proper ownership of antiquities is an obligation the museum takes seriously, and the museum is grateful that these pieces will be returning to their rightful home,” a museum spokesperson said in a statement.
The items in question include a 12th-to-13th century Khmer sandstone sculpture depicting standing Prajnaparamita, a 7th-to-8th century Khmer sandstone sculpture depicting standing Surya, an Iron Age Dong Son bronze bell, and a 17th-to-18th century sandstone lintel depicting the sleep of Vishnu and birth of Brahma, according to the complaint.
“As alleged, Douglas Latchford papered over the problematic provenance of Cambodian antiquities with falsehoods, in the process successfully placing stolen goods in the permanent collection of an American museum,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release. “Eradicating the illegal trade in stolen antiquities requires the vigilance of all parties in the art market, especially cultural institutions.”
The forfeiture stems from an international investigation by a team of journalists last month — known as the “Pandora Papers” — which revealed previously secret tax documents showing how the world’s rich and powerful hid assets and shielded their wealth overseas, including Latchford.
The “Pandora Papers” uncovered a host of looted items connected to Latchford that were still housed in museums around the world — including six pieces in the Denver Art Museum.
Museum officials last month said those items included four from Cambodia and two from Thailand. The museum contacted Cambodian officials in 2019 after Latchford’s indictment and had been in conversation with U.S. and Cambodian governments regarding their return.
The four Cambodian works were also deaccessioned — or officially removed from the museum’s listed holdings — in September, the museum said.
How the Denver Art Museum got duped
The civil complaint details how Latchford sold stolen art to the Denver Art Museum — helped by a scholar of Khmer art who is only identified in court documents as a “volunteer research consultant for the museum.”
“Over the years, the Scholar assisted Latchford on many occasions by verifying or vouching for the proffered provenance” — or ownership histories — “of Khmer antiquities that Latchford was trying to sell,” the forfeiture complaint said.
Latchford “repeatedly lied to the museum,” prosecutors said in the complaint, particularly regarding the ownership history of the Prajnaparamita and the Surya.
Around May 2000, Latchford agreed to loan the two items to the Denver Art Museum, saying that he had acquired the Prajnaparamita from a made-up art collector.
When a museum curator later that year emailed the scholar with concerns about the 1970 UNESCO Convention restrictions on objects taken by soldiers during war, the scholar told the curator that the made-up collector “is very ill in a hospital.”
“The Scholar added that ‘[the False Collector] has no idea where it came from’ and ‘[the False Collector] was never a soldier in Vietnam, so this did not come out during the war,’” according to the complaint.
In 2015, a Denver Art Museum researcher reached out to Latchford in another attempt to learn more about the false collector. The museum only got a response from a person claiming to be Latchford’s secretary, prosecutors alleged, “falsely claiming that Latchford was ill and could not respond to the request.”
For the two other items, the Bell and the Lintel, Latchford provided the museum limited provenance information, the complaint said.
Investigators working with the U.S. and Cambodian governments determined that these four antiquities were looted after showing photographs to an individual who had “previously engaged in the theft and looting of antiquities from Cambodian temples and archeological sites,” prosecutors said.
Cambodia has been engaged in a decades-long pursuit of looted art that began during Pol Pot’s dictatorial regime in the 1970s.
Latchford never stood trial on his charges, dying in August at 88.
The disgraced art collector had a known Colorado associate named Emma Bunker, who was affiliated with the Denver Art Museum for 40 years before her death earlier this year, serving on the museum’s board of trustees and as a volunteer helping secure lecturers and speakers.
Bunker and Latchford wrote three books together exploring Khmer art, and enjoyed a 30-year friendship, according to the New York Times.
She’s not named in Monday’s forfeiture filing. A 2016 criminal complaint apparently referenced Bunker and Latchford as “co-conspirators” in a scheme helping a prominent New York gallery owner, Nancy Weiner, falsify documentary history of looted Cambodian relics, the New York Times reported in 2017.
Neither Latchford nor Bunker was named in the criminal complaint, but the Times reported that he was the individual identified as “co-conspirator No. 1” and she was “co-conspirator No. 2.”
Bunker was never charged.
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