The Denver Post’s Sam Tabachnik exposed the dark underside of America’s vast international art collection housed in museums, universities, and private homes across the nation in the three-part series, “Looted: Stolen relics, laundered art and a Colorado scholar’s role in the illicit antiquities trade.”
As the headline suggests, Tabachnik uncovered a network of plunder that, over decades, robbed Southeast Asians of a significant part of their art, heritage, and culture.
And at the center of the work was a Denver woman known as “The Scholar,” who is accused of having worked hand-in-hand with an art dealer to hide the means of ill-gotten statutes presenting auction houses, private buyers and museums with the needed sheen of legitimacy.
We have heard rumors that the Denver Art Museum is among the worst institutions in America in terms of their willingness to accept plundered and looted art. But The Post’s investigation was the first time hard evidence of such bad behavior has been laid out so cleanly and so irrefutably.
We are dismayed that Christoph Heinrich, the director of the Denver Art Museum, has not publicly responded to the scandal. We worry the institution is hoping the storm will blow over without having to address the fact that not only is the museum housing artwork that was likely smuggled into the U.S. by art dealer Douglas Latchford and then legitimized by The Scholar Emma C. Bunker, but the Denver Art Museum’s complicity also helped give these two people legitimacy in the eyes of other buyers.
“The Denver Art Museum became one of Latchford’s primary landing spots as he sought to burnish his reputation,” The Post’s investigation found. “The institution housed more looted pieces of his than any other collection aside from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the ‘Pandora Papers’ investigation found last year.
“All told, the Denver museum spent more than a half-million dollars on Latchford pieces, and he loaned, gifted or sold the museum more than a dozen ancient artifacts — deals made possible and shepherded along by Bunker, court records and previously unreported emails show.”
This is not a scandal that Heinrich can ignore.
He should immediately commit to removing Bunker’s name from exhibits and pledge to review the acquisition process of art tied to Latchford and Bunker. The Denver Art Museum received much praise in recent years for returning four looted statues to Cambodia.
But the action rings hollow now that we know Cambodian officials have requested Denver Art Museum records for any pieces that came from Latchford and Bunker and that the museum has not responded to the request after 18 months.
Only after the investigation was complete has the museum taken steps to distance itself from Bunker, whose name appears on The Bunker Gallery section of the Denver Art Museum’s Southeast Asian gallery.
Because both Latchford and Bunker died before the investigations and potential prosecution of their criminal actions could be completed, the onus now rests on the museums to complete their own survey of art.
Museum officials responded via e-mail to questions from The Denver Post and indicated that they have not cooperated with officials in Cambodia directly on other objects outside of the four already returned because the museum has provided “all records to the DOJ regarding the returned pieces.”
But that is not the information that is needed – there are other pieces in question.
The Post reported that “Latchford loaned, gifted or sold 14 pieces to Denver’s museum between 1999 and 2011, according to museum records. They included the four relics returned to Cambodia in August and two objects from Thailand — a neolithic vessel and cabinet — that remain in the museum’s collection.”
There is much more to write about the Looted investigation than we can cover here.
If all of this seems insignificant amid larger travesties in a world with billions of people, consider the great difficulty and barriers preventing Cambodians from visiting the United States to see these exquisite relics from their own culture and history.
We were struck hard by a quote from Hab Touch, the deputy director of Cambodia’s National Museum, that was included in a 495-page book written by Latchford and Bunker documenting many of the art that had passed through their hands.
“The first time I saw the photographs of Khmer sculptures collected by Emma and Douglas for this book, I realized that while I work with Khmer art every day, I had only been familiar with a small proportion of what exists,” wrote Touch.
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