High-level officials from the three Southeast Asian countries condemned the Denver Art Museum (DAM) publicly after the museum didn’t respond to letters they sent in May and June demanding the return of looted artifacts.
The Denver Post reported earlier in August that Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam asked for the return of eight artifacts held by the DAM, six donated by the same disgraced DAM trustee and consultant, Emma C. Bunker.
The demands are the latest in a scandal over looted antiquities in the DAM’s Asian arts collection and the museum’s alleged role in laundering stolen art for an accused international art smuggler and dealer.
In November 2021, after federal prosecutors sought the forfeiture of four Cambodian antiquities held by the DAM, the museum folded and returned them to the country, as the Denver Post reported. But the DAM still holds over 200 pieces acquired via Bunker, despite calls for their return.
In December 2022, the Denver Post published a three-part investigative report into how Bunker helped art dealer Douglas Latchford sell looted works to the DAM.
Latchford was long a controversial figure for his leading role in the theft of Cambodia’s cultural heritage during the nation’s civil war and genocide, but his role in other countries is lesser-known. In 2019 New York prosecutors charged Latchford for his activities, but the prosecution ended with his death in 2020.
Thailand is hoping for the return of the ‘Prakhon Chai bronzes,’ removed from an underground vault discovered in the 1960s near the Cambodian border and sold to Latchford. Two sit in the DAM, while dozens of others exist in collections across the United States.
Among other pieces, Vietnam demanded the return of a 2,000-year-old dagger donated to the DAM by Bunker. Five of her six donations to DAM being demanded back lack provenance, documentation which proves the origin and legality of the artifact—something museums are supposed to require for acquisitions.
A museum spokesman told the Guardian they’ve been in contact with the Cambodian and Thai governments since 2019 and 2021 respectively and are putting their full efforts into working with the USDOJ to return stolen artifacts to their nations of origin.
Angela Chiu, an independent art expert who spoke to the Guardian asked why DAM hasn’t unilaterally returned its clearly looted artifacts, and added that Bunker might not be their only donor with questionable sources.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong date when the Denver Art Museum returned four pieces to Cambodia)
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