The United States government has entered the fray of an international art scandal involving four Cambodian antiquities, which 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 on Monday, seeking to seize four Cambodian antiquities that were sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford — a now-defunct art dealer who The allegation was made two years ago. Several crimes involving the looting and illegal sale of ancient artifacts.
The Justice Department said in the complaint, the Denver Art Museum “voluntarily discarded the antiquities,” and museum officials said they “welcomed today’s announcement.” However, the museum said, “the work is still under the museum’s supervision until the next stage of the process of relocating them.”
“Ensuring proper ownership of antiques is an obligation that the museum takes seriously, and the museum is grateful that these pieces will be returned to their rightful homes,” a museum spokesperson said in a statement.
The objects in question include a Khmer sandstone sculpture from the 12th to 13th centuries depicting standing prajnaparamita, a Khmer sandstone sculpture from the 7th to 8th centuries depicting the standing sun, an Iron Age Dong Son bronze bell, and a 17th to 18th century Khmer sandstone sculpture. Centenary sandstone is depicted. According to the complaint, the lintel depicting the sleep of Vishnu and the birth of Brahma.
US Attorney Damien Williams said in a news release, “As alleged, Douglas Latchford worked with lies on the problematic origins of Cambodian antiquity, in the process successfully placing the stolen goods in the permanent collection of the American Museum. ” “Ending the illegal trade in stolen antiquities requires the vigilance of all parties in the art market, especially in cultural institutions.”
The seizure stems from an international investigation last month by a team of journalists – known as the “Pandora Papers” – that previously unearthed secret tax documents showing how the world’s rich and powerful stole wealth. Concealed and protected his possessions abroad, including Latchford.
The “Pandora Papers” uncovered several looted items belonging to Latchford that were still kept in museums around the world—including six pieces at the Denver Art Museum.
Museum officials said last month that those items included four from Cambodia and two from Thailand. Following Latchford’s indictment, the museum contacted Cambodian authorities in 2019 and was in talks with the US and Cambodian governments regarding his return.
Four Cambodian works were also removed – or officially removed from the museum’s listed holdings – in September, the museum said.
How the Denver Art Museum Was Scam
The civil complaint details how Latchford sold the stolen art to the Denver Art Museum—helped by a scholar of Khmer art, who is identified only in court documents as a “volunteer research consultant for the museum.”
“Over the years, the scholar assisted Latchford on several occasions by verifying or vouching for proven origins”—or ownership history—that “was trying to sell Khmer antiquities,” the forfeiture complaint said.
Latchford “repeatedly lied to the museum,” prosecutors said in the complaint, specifically regarding prajnaparamita and Sun’s ownership history.
Around May 2000, Latchford agreed to lend the two objects to the Denver Art Museum, saying they had acquired wisdom 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 items taken by soldiers during the war, the scholar told the curator that the makeup collector was “very sick in the hospital.”
“The scholar said that ‘[the False Collector] don’t know where it came from’ and ‘[the False Collector] Vietnam never had troops, so it didn’t come to the fore during the war,” according to the complaint.
In 2015, a Denver art museum researcher arrived at Latchford to learn more about the false collector. The museum only received a response from a man claiming to be Latchford’s secretary, prosecutors alleging, “falsely claiming that Latchford was ill and
Could not respond to request.”
The complaint states that for two other objects, the bell and the lintel, Latchford provided limited origin information to the museum.
Prosecutors said investigators working with the US and Cambodian governments determined these four antiquities were looted after showing photographs to a man who had “previously engaged in theft and looting of antiquities from Cambodian temples and archaeological sites”. ,” prosecutors said.
Cambodia has been engaged in the pursuit of looted art for decades that began in the 1970s during Pol Pot’s dictatorial rule.
Latchford never went to trial on his charges after he died in August at the age of 88.
The disgraced art collector had a known Colorado colleague 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 securing lecturers as a volunteer. and assisting the speakers.
According to the New York Times, Bunker and Latchford wrote three books together exploring Khmer art and enjoyed a 30-year friendship.
He is not named in Monday’s seizure filing. A 2016 criminal complaint explicitly referred to Bunker and Latchford as “co-conspirators” in a scheme to help a prominent New York gallery owner, Nancy Weiner, document history of looted Cambodian remains. wrong, as 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 person identified as “co-conspirator No. 1” and that she was “co-conspirator No. 2”.
The bunker was never charged.