Sculpture once looted from Denver Art Museum in federal seizure linked to indicted art dealer Douglas Latchford

US Attorney’s Office

A late 12th-century Bayon-style sandstone sculpture of the eight-armed Avalokiteshvara that is among 35 Cambodian and Southeast Asian antiquities linked to an indicted art dealer seized by the federal government. The piece was formerly on display at the Denver Art Museum.

The federal government this week decided to seize 35 Cambodian and Southeast Asian antiquities linked to an indicted art dealer, including a sculpture that was previously at the Denver Art Museum.

The objects in question were sold to a private collector by Douglas Latchford, who built up one of the largest private collections of Khmer antiquities in the world before being accused in 2019 of leading a year-long program to sell looted relics on the international art market, federal prosecutors alleged in a civil forfeiture complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Latchford died in 2020 before he could stand trial.

Latchford “sold the collection to its present owner…with false statements and false provenance documents intended to hide the fact that the antiquities were the product of looting, then imported the antiquities through lies on the documents customs officers,” federal prosecutors alleged in the complaint.

The collector is not named in court documents, but The New York Times on Wednesday identified the individual as James H. Clark, who co-founded Netscape, one of the first web browsers, in 1994.

Clark spent around $35 million on the art collection, he told The Times, although the pieces are now worth much more. Investigators convinced him to turn it all in, he said, in hopes it might inspire others to do the same.

“As a naive person,” Clark told the newspaper, “I had apparently acquired, out of ignorance, one of the finest private collections of Cambodian antiquities.”

One such relic includes a late 12th-century Bayon-style sandstone sculpture depicting the eight-armed Avalokiteshvara. When Latchford sold the sculpture to Clark around 2003, it was on loan to the Denver Art Museum, where Latchford’s associate – referred to only in court documents as “the scholar” – worked as a pro bono research consultant, prosecutors said. .

Latchford told the Denver Art Museum that the piece was acquired from an individual known as a “fake collector,” according to the complaint – someone the art dealer would use to falsify the objects’ origins so that they can be sold on the open market. without suspicion of looting.

A Denver Art Museum spokesperson said in an email that the sculpture was on loan to the museum from February 2001 to December 2003.

“The museum was not involved in the acquisition or sale of this piece and has no details of these transactions,” museum spokeswoman Kristy Bassuener said in the email.

As part of the sale, prosecutors say, Latchford provided the private collector with a letter from this “fake collector”, stating that this person had acquired the sculpture from Vietnam between 1964 and 1966.

But before and after the sale of this sculpture and a second object, Latchford ‘strongly implied’ to an individual – known in the complaint as the ‘decorator’ – that he had acquired the objects himself. at the time of their excavation in Cambodia.

“This office continues to track down and recover the many stolen cultural treasures that Douglas Latchford sold and scattered away from their home country,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release announcing the forfeiture. “Through this action, the United States reaffirms its commitment to right the wrongs committed by Latchford and other raiders who would exploit and profit from the pain and disruption of war.”

In recent years, the Cambodian government has combed the world for cultural artefacts looted from its centuries-old historic sites during the dictatorial regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s and the decades of civil war and unrest that followed. .

Latchford, according to authorities, was one of the most egregious offenders. The ‘Pandora Papers’ investigation in October found that a host of museums from Denver to Britain to Australia still had Latchford’s objects in their collections, and over the following months pressure arose. exercised to repatriate looted antiquities.

In November, the Denver Art Museum voluntarily relinquished four Cambodian relics linked to Latchford after federal prosecutors requested their seizure. Authorities previously said Latchford repeatedly lied to the museum about the provenance — or ownership history — of other items the art dealer had sold to the museum.

Latchford had a well-known associate from Colorado named Emma Bunker, who was affiliated with the Denver Art Museum for 40 years before her death last year, serving on the museum’s board and as a volunteer helping find speakers and speakers. The two wrote three books together exploring Khmer art and maintained a 30-year friendship.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that she had been named by Manhattan prosecutors as “co-conspirator No. 2” involved in a scheme – with Latchford – to help a prominent New York gallerist tamper with history. documentary of looted Cambodian relics.

Bunker has never been charged with a crime and is not named in Tuesday’s civil complaint.

Mildred D. Field