3 Southeast Asian countries say Denver Art Museum holds stolen heritage

Government officials from three Southeast Asian nations say the Denver Art Museum continues to house antiquities stolen from their countries’ ancient temples and heritage sites.

Representatives from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam sent letters to the museum, via U.S. investigators, in May and June, saying the prized relics had no legal export permits to lawfully leave their countries. The museum, they said, did not respond.

“There is a taint on these cultural properties at the Denver Art Museum,” Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, wrote in a June letter obtained by The Denver Post.

The countries are seeking the return of eight pieces in all — including six donated to the museum by Emma C. Bunker, a former Denver Art Museum trustee and research consultant. In December, The Post published a three-part investigation into Bunker’s critical role in a decades-long antiquities trafficking operation that implicated some of the world’s top museums and private collectors.

Bunker’s close relationship with one disgraced dealer, the late Douglas Latchford, spurred the Denver Art Museum to acquire a host of looted Southeast Asian relics — some of which the museum has returned in recent years.

After The Post’s series, museum officials removed Bunker’s name from a gallery wall and returned $185,000 that she and her family had donated as part of a 2018 naming agreement. The museum also shuttered an Asian art acquisition fund dedicated in Bunker’s honor after her death in 2021.

Denver’s museum, though, still holds more than 200 pieces from Bunker’s collection — and host countries are clamoring for their return. The antiquities include a 2,000-year-old green Vietnamese dagger from the ancient Dong Son culture, a bronze 12th-century Buddha from Thailand and multiple 12th-century Khmer bronzes, among others.

Bunker in 2016 donated these six pieces to the museum, along with three others, as part of the naming agreement that would cement her legacy on the museum’s Southeast Asian gallery wing for half a century.

She never faced criminal charges, but Bunker is named or referenced in five civil and criminal cases related to illicit antiquities.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been investigating the origins of the Southeast Asian pieces since last year.

The museum in March formally deaccessioned — or removed from its collection — five of the donated pieces, Kristy Bassuener, a Denver Art Museum spokesperson, said in an email. The museum is working with the U.S. government to ensure their return, she said.

“The museum has cooperated with the U.S. government, including producing all requested materials, and will continue to do so as it responds to the government’s inquiries in its ongoing work to ensure the integrity of its collections,” Bassuener said.

“A cause of serious concern”

Thailand has been targeting a cache of stolen bronze statues — known as the “Prakhon Chai” horde — which were unearthed in the 1960s from a secret vault near the Cambodian border. Villagers told The Post last year that they sold these rare finds to Latchford for huge sums. Bunker then marketed these valuable relics in articles to bolster their value.

Two of the so-called “Prakhon Chai” statues sit in the Denver Art Museum, while dozens of others remain in the collections of prominent American galleries from New York to San Fransisco. The U.S. government is investigating those as well.

“These donations to the Denver Art Museum are a cause of serious concern as Thailand has not issued any permits or permissions to Ms. Bunker for the exportation of Thai cultural heritage,” Phnombootra Chandrajoti, director general of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department, wrote in an April letter. “Ms. Bunker was well known among academics for her association with individuals responsible for significant looting throughout Southeast Asia.”

For five of the six donations, Bunker was unable to provide the museum any provenance — or ownership — information, according to museum donation documents, which were obtained by The Post. Bunker said she purchased the sixth piece in 2012 from Jonathan Tucker, a London art dealer and known Latchford associate. Tucker told the museum he acquired the item — a 19th-century gilded bronze Buddha — from a private English collection. He provided no contact information or name.

The dagger, appraised at $8,000, “is one of the finest pieces of its kind,” according to the museum documents. Minted between 300 BCE and 200 CE, the 9-inch-tall dagger sports a standing human figure on its handle, a typical feature of Dong Son bronze weaponry. Bunker originally loaned the piece in 2005 to the Denver museum before making it part of her gift.

“It will be a nice addition to our small Vietnam collection,” museum officials wrote.

Small, portable objects like this one, officials noted, are considered “very low risk for repatriation claims.”

The museum also indicated that the dagger, along with two other donated pieces, previously had been published in Bunker and Latchford’s books. The dagger appeared in their 2004 work “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” attributed to a “private collection.”

Publishing looted pieces in books or articles is a common laundering practice, investigators say. Bunker and Latchford’s three books gave stolen pieces an air of legitimacy, experts say, and increased their value. Latchford, with Bunker’s help, used loans and gifts to the Denver Art Museum in order to market his pieces for sale to wealthy collectors, The Post previously reported.

Experts in the illicit antiquities trade say objects with no provenance — such as Bunker’s donations — also represent enormous red flags, especially when they come from war-torn countries. Cambodia, in particular, suffered from widespread looting during the genocidal Khmer Rouge reign in the 1970s and subsequent civil war.

The region’s history “should have heightened the museum’s scrutiny of its provenance,” said Angela Chiu, an independent art expert who studies the Asian antiquities trade. Instead, officials “assembled a hash of excuses to justify the acceptance.”

Thailand’s cultural patrimony laws date back to 1926, meaning any piece without an export permit cannot legally leave the country. Cambodia never issued permits allowing cultural heritage to be shipped abroad.

“If it’s not there, you don’t have complete provenance,” said David Keller, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency leading the Thailand probe. It’s been difficult, he said, getting museums to acknowledge that pieces that may have been part of their collection for a long time could have problems with ownership.

“What is rightfully ours”

Museums for decades burnished their collections without much care for provenance. That began to change after a 1970 UNESCO convention designed to combat the illegal trade in cultural items.

The Denver Art Museum, though, acquired Bunker’s objects well after museums had adopted more stringent acquisition policies. And the donations came just three years after Bunker’s name surfaced in a New York civil case surrounding the auction of a multimillion-dollar stolen Cambodian statue.

“They’re obviously not following proper ethical standards,” said Bradley J. Gordon, an American attorney leading Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim its plundered history. “You really have to question what was the mindset of the management and board of trustees at that time.”

The Denver Art Museum did not respond to questions about why the museum acquired antiquities with no provenance, only saying acquisition and loan practices have “evolved and improved over the last several decades.”

Cambodia has been especially vocal as it seeks the return of its cultural heritage from collections around the world. Officials have been pressing New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for dozens of looted objects in its care and scouring the globe for other national treasures. This month, Australia’s national gallery returned three thousand-year-old statues to the Southeast Asian nation.

“The stolen Cambodian objects at the Denver Art Museum are not the result of an isolated incident,” Sackona, the Cambodian official, wrote in the letter. “Many other artifacts were taken from Cambodia without permission over a number of decades.

“But first we must be given back what is rightfully ours.”

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