Denver Art Museum drops looted Cambodian antiquities as feds seek confiscation

The United States government has entered the fray over an international art scandal involving four Cambodian antiques that federal prosecutors say were looted and sold to the Denver Art Museum, where they have been on display for years.

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a civil lawsuit in federal court on Monday, seeking the forfeiture of four Cambodian antiques that were sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford – a now deceased art dealer who has been charged two years ago of a host of crimes associated with the looting and illegal sale of ancient artifacts.

The Denver Art Museum “has voluntarily relinquished possession of the antiquities,” the Justice Department said in the complaint, and museum officials said they “welcome today’s announcement.” today”. The museum, however, said “the works are still in the custody of the museum until the next stage of the transfer process.”

“Securing ownership of antiquities is an obligation the museum takes seriously, and the museum is grateful that these pieces are returning to their rightful homes,” a museum spokesperson said in a statement.

The objects in question include a 12th-13th century Khmer sandstone sculpture of standing Prajnaparamita, a 7th-8th century Khmer sandstone sculpture of standing Surya, an Iron Age bronze Dong Son bell, and a 7th-century sandstone in the eighth century. lintel depicting Vishnu sleeping and Brahma being born, according to the complaint.

“As alleged, Douglas Latchford covered up the problematic provenance of Cambodian antiquities with lies, thereby successfully placing stolen property into the permanent collection of a US museum,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release. “The eradication of the illegal trade in stolen antiquities requires the vigilance of all actors in the art market, in particular cultural institutions.”

The confiscation stems from an international investigation by a team of journalists last month – known as the ‘Pandora Papers’ – which uncovered previously secret tax documents showing how the world’s rich and powerful hid assets and protected their wealth overseas, including Latchford.

The “Pandora Papers” uncovered a host of looted Latchford-related items that were still housed in museums around the world, including six pieces at the Denver Art Museum.

Last month, museum officials said those objects included four from Cambodia and two from Thailand. The museum contacted Cambodian officials in 2019 after Latchford was charged and had conversations with the US and Cambodian governments regarding their return.

The four Cambodian works were also alienated — or officially removed from the museum’s listed holdings — in September, the museum said.

How the Denver Art Museum was tricked

The civil complaint details how Latchford sold stolen artwork to the Denver Art Museum – aided by a specialist in Khmer art who is only identified in court documents as a “volunteer research consultant to the museum”.

“Over the years, the scholar assisted Latchford on numerous occasions by verifying or vouching for the provenance” – or ownership histories – “of the Khmer antiquities that Latchford was trying to sell,” the forfeiture complaint states. .

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 objects to the Denver Art Museum, claiming that he had acquired the Prajnaparamita from a make-up art collector.

When a museum curator later that year emailed the researcher with concerns about the 1970 UNESCO Convention restrictions on objects taken from soldiers during war, the researcher said to 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 comes 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 contacted Latchford in another attempt to find out more about the fake collector. The museum only received a response from a person claiming to be Latchford’s secretary, according to prosecutors, “falsely claiming that Latchford was ill and could not meet the demand.”

For the other two objects, the bell and the lintel, Latchford provided the museum with limited provenance information, according to the complaint.

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 theft and looting of antiquities from Cambodian temples and archaeological sites. “, prosecutors said.

Cambodia has been engaged for decades in a quest for looted art that began under the dictatorial regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s.

Latchford was never tried on his charges, dying in August at age 88.

The disgraced art collector had a well-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 and as a volunteer helping to find lecturers and lecturers.

Bunker and Latchford wrote three books together exploring Khmer art and had a 30-year friendship, according to The New York Times.

She is not named in Monday’s forfeiture case. A 2016 criminal complaint apparently referred to Bunker and Latchford as “co-conspirators” in a scheme to help a prominent New York gallerist, Nancy Weiner, falsify the documentary history of looted Cambodian relics, the New York reported. Times in 2017.

Neither Latchford nor Bunker were named in the criminal complaint, but The Times reported that he was the person identified as “co-conspirator No. 1” and she was “co-conspirator No. 2”.

Bunker was never charged.

Mildred D. Field