The Denver Art Museum is in possession of six ancient relics from Cambodia and Thailand that are at the center of an international art scandal.
The revelation came as part of the “Pandora Papers,” a series of reports by a coalition of investigative journalists released last week that used a cache of previously secret tax documents to show how some of the world’s richest and most powerful figures stashed assets and shielded their wealth oversees.
One of those figures is Douglas Latchford, a now-deceased art dealer who assembled one of the world’s largest private collections of Cambodian treasures that date back to the Khmer empire more than 1,000 years ago.
Federal prosecutors charged Latchford in 2019 with a host of crimes associated with the pillaging and illegal selling of ancient artifacts — but the Pandora Papers identified at least 27 relics with ties to Latchford still sitting in museums around the world.
Six of those objects are in the Denver Art Museum — four from Cambodia and two from Thailand, museum officials confirmed this week. None of the objects are on display.
“Immediately after the indictment of Douglas Latchford in 2019, the museum contacted officials in Cambodia to gather additional information about the four pieces from that country,” museum officials said in the statement. “The museum has been in conversation with both the U.S. and Cambodian governments regarding those objects and their return.”
The four Cambodian works, the museum said, were deaccessioned — or officially removed from the museum’s listed holdings — in September as officials worked to return them to Cambodia. Neither the museum nor the Pandora Papers identified the four items.
The museum is still conducting research related to the two objects from Thailand, officials added, which consist of an 18th- or 19th-century cabinet and a Neolithic vessel.
Cambodian artifacts long have been subject to looting, beginning in the 1970s under Pol Pot’s dictatorial, genocidal regime. As a result, authorities there have spent the better part of four decades seeking to reclaim lost items that have migrated around the globe.
Latchford’s 2019 indictment showcases how he allegedly deceived art collections — including a Colorado museum — by fabricating invoices and other records documenting these objects’ history and origin.
Around 2000, Latchford sold a 12th-century stone Khmer sculpture to the “Colorado museum” (court documents didn’t specify which one), prosecutors said. He supplied the museum with letters of provenance — the history of artworks’ ownership — claiming to have purchased the piece from a collector the year prior.
But that collector died in 2001 — and prosecutors said Latchford continued to provide false letters from the individual, claiming the person was still alive. (Latchford died last year before his case could go to trial.)
“Co-conspirator No. 2”
Colorado connections to the international investigation didn’t end there.
Journalists on the Pandora Papers project identified some of the relics still in circulation using Latchford’s 2011 “Khmer Bronzes” book — which he co-authored with a prominent Colorado scholar, art professor and former Denver Art Museum board member named Emma C. Bunker.
Bunker and Latchford enjoyed a 30-year friendship, collaborating on three books exploring Khmer art. She was affiliated for more than 40 years with the Denver Art Museum before her death earlier this year, serving on the museum’s Board of Trustees and as a volunteer helping the museum secure lecturers and speakers for the Asian art department’s public programming, museum officials said.
But the two also apparently were referenced in a 2016 criminal complaint by Manhattan’s district attorney 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.”
The Denver Post could not find any record that Bunker was charged in connection with the complaint.
Prosecutors at the time pointed to seized emails that allegedly showed Latchford and Bunker making up ownership histories for various items. In one email, co-conspirator No. 1 tells Weiner that he typically gives co-conspirator No. 2 “bronze statutes in exchange for false letters of provenance,” according to the criminal complaint.
“Committed to ethical collection practices”
Andy Sinclair, a spokesperson for the Denver Art Museum, said in a statement that that Bunker has given funds and gifted the museum several pieces which sit in the Asian Art, Art of the Ancient Americas, Textile Art and Fashion, and Architecture and Design collections.
“The museum is aware of the 2017 New York Times article… and is committed to ethical collection practices and engages in ongoing provenance research for objects in its collection, including works related to this inquiry,” Sinclair said in the statement.
The Denver Art Museum already has returned one item it obtained from the Weiner gallery, which New York authorities raided in 2016 as part of a string of takedowns involving looted South Asian antiquities.
Less than three weeks before the raid, museum officials in Denver announced they had returned a 10th-century sandstone sculpture to Cambodia. The 6-foot-tall piece, “Torso of Rama,” had been acquired from the Doris Weiner Gallery in 1986. (Nancy Weiner is Doris’ daughter).
The Cambodian government had contacted the museum as part of its efforts to return a cadre of ancient artifacts stolen during its 1970s civil war.
After Bunker’s death this year, the Denver Art Museum launched the Emma Cadwalader Bunker Asian Art Acquisitions Fund in her honor. A celebration of her life will be held at the museum in June 2022 to honor her “academic and scholarly contributions to the field of Asian art and in memory of a dear friend with a warm heart that made everyone feel welcome,” the museum said on its website.
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