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“Head of a Buddha” (ca. 920-50), from Cambodia, gifted by Douglas J. Latchford to the Met Museum in New York City (Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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The Denver Art Museum will return four stolen ancient artifacts to Cambodia following revelations in the leaked Pandora Papers that exposed the offshore transactions of indicted antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford.

Published earlier this month by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Pandora Papers uncovered 11.9 million documents that expose the offshore dealings and hidden assets of wealthy individuals ranging from world leaders to celebrities and business leaders. The leaked documents include offshore trusts that belonged to Latchford, a British antiquities dealer who was charged with trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian objects by the US Justice Department in 2019. According to the indictment, Latchford used false export licenses, false invoices, and false letters of provenance provided by a “false collector.” The alleged trafficker died last year before his trial and the case was subsequently dismissed.

An investigation by the Washington Post, published on October 5, tracked 27 antiquities sold by Latchford to major art institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s British Museum.

The Post reported that the Denver Art Museum removed the four artifacts from its collection after receiving a letter requesting comment from the ICIJ on October 9. The museum’s decision to return the items was first reported by the Colorado Sun.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the museum said it contacted officials in Cambodia to “gather additional information about the four pieces from that country” immediately after Latchford’s indictment in 2019.

“The museum has been in conversation with both the US and Cambodian governments regarding those objects and their return since that time,” a spokesperson for the museum wrote. “As part of the process, the four Cambodian works associated with Latchford were deaccessioned from the museum’s collection in September, and the museum is now working with the government to return the pieces to Cambodia.” 

The looted artifacts include sandstone statues and bronze busts from the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th century to the 15th century. One of the pieces is a sandstone Prajnaparamita, the goddess of transcendent wisdom, which was acquired by the museum in 2000. A now-archived webpage for the statue (recovered by the Post using the Wayback Machine) says it was “purchased in honor of Emma C. Bunker,” an antiquities scholar who co-authored three books with Latchford.

The museum told Hyperallergic that it is also conducting research related to the two objects from Thailand that had been acquired from Latchford: an 18th or 19th-century cabinet and a Neolithic vessel.

The blog Chasing Aphrodite warned about the looted Cambodian artifacts in Denver Art Museum’s collection back in 2012.

“In short, in recent years the Denver Art Museum has acquired several Cambodian antiquities with little or no documented ownership history — much less evidence of legal exportation — from a man now at the center of a federal looting probe,” the blog post said. “For several of those objects, the only documented history was a book written by Latchford himself.” 

As the Denver museum prepares to return the looted Cambodian pieces to their country of origin, the Metropolitan Museum told Hyperallergic it is currently “reviewing the pieces” that came to its collection via Latchford and his associates.

“As we continue our research, we will engage with the government of Cambodia as needed, as we have had a strong and productive partnership with their cultural leaders in the past,” the museum added.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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