The Denver Art Museum has been implicated in an international art smuggling scam and is now trying to get out of negotiations with the Cambodian government.
Looting and trafficking of Khmer Empire statues and artifacts from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand came to light during an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ review of offshore trusts and companies used to hide or protect assets of the public or tax collectors.
The consortium shared 11.9 million documents from offshore account companies – dubbed the Pandora Papers – with 150 media outlets around the world.
Most of the documents focus on billionaires, current and former heads of state, corporate tycoons, oligarchs and kings and their villas in Monte Carlo, Malibu mansions, Caribbean yachts and private jets. pretty much everywhere.
There was, however, a story by the Washington Post and British and Australian media, about giant sandstone statues and bronze busts and an English art collector named Douglas Latchford.
Latchford, a self-proclaimed Southeast Asian art expert and explorer of isolated jungle temples, amassed one of the largest private art collections of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th century. in the 15th century.
Latchford was simultaneously engaged in the smuggling and illegal sale of looted Khmer art, according to a 2019 federal indictment of the art dealer for wire fraud and smuggling.
Between 1970 and the 1990s, Cambodia experienced inconsistent turmoil, with periodic outbreaks of civil war allowing smugglers and looters to have more freedom in valuable and often remote archaeological sites.
Of the pieces sold or traded by Latchford, six were sent to the Denver Art Museum. They were among more than 27 items the Washington Post found in museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.
The 2019 indictment explained that to facilitate the sale and international transport of the looted items, Latchford created bogus export licenses, bogus letters of provenance, bogus invoices, and used someone as a front, called the “false collector”.
“In or around 2000, Latchford sold a 12th century Khmer stone sculpture to a museum in Colorado,” the indictment reads. “Latchford informed the Colorado Museum that he purchased the piece from the False Collector in June 1999 and provided the Colorado Museum with a letter of provenance allegedly from the False Collector as part of the sale.”
“However, Latchford also provided the Colorado Museum with documents indicating that the statue was transported from Latchford’s residence in Bangkok to London in 1994, long before he claimed to have purchased it from the False Collector,” according to the indictment.
Latchford was 88 when he died last year, before his case could go to trial, but Nancy Wiener, 66, a New York art dealer, who sold some of Latchford’s loot, has pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and possession of stolen property charges in October 5.
And what about contraband in Denver?
“The Denver Art Museum has six objects donated to the museum by or purchased from Douglas Latchford, four of them from the Kingdom of Cambodia and two of them from Thailand,” the museum said in a statement to The Sun.
“In 2019, the museum contacted officials in Cambodia to gather additional information on the four pieces from that country,” the statement continued. “The museum has held talks with government officials in the United States and Cambodia regarding items in its collection related to Latchford from that country. The four Cambodian works associated with Latchford were removed from the museum’s collection on September 1, 2021, and DAM is working with the government to return the pieces to Cambodia.
The museum also said that “provenance research is still ongoing at DAM in accordance with appropriate protocols.”
The museum declined to identify the six pieces it holds from Latchford, but in March 2016 Christoph Heinrich, DAM’s curator, participated in a ceremony in Phnom Penh, marking the return of a 10th century sandstone statue century known as Torso de Rama in Cambodia.
DAM acquired the statue in 1986 from the Nancy Wiener gallery. The gallery was founded by Nancy Wiener’s mother, Doris, a great Indian and Southeast Asian art dealer, who died in 2011.
Cambodia continues to hunt for all art and artifacts stolen by Latchford and others.
“We will never give up on pursuing the return of our heritage,” Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona told the Washington Post.
“These objects are not just decorations, but have spirits and are considered lives,” she said. “It is difficult to quantify their loss to our temples and our country – losing them was like losing the spirits of our ancestors. “