Expert Opinion or Elaborate Ruse? Scrutiny for Scholars’ Role in Art Sales

Expert Opinion or Elaborate Ruse? Scrutiny for Scholars’ Role in Art Sales


They have long been oddly far-flung collaborators. She was a Colorado museum consultant known for her esoteric lectures on ancient gold adornments or nomadic Chinese tribes. He was a buccaneering Bangkok art collector who trekked through Cambodia’s war-ravaged jungles in the 1970s, exploring moss-encrusted temples built a thousand years earlier, during the heyday of Khmer civilization.

Over the course of a 30-year friendship, Emma C. Bunker, 87, and Douglas A. J. Latchford, 86, became authorities on Southeast Asian antiquities whose approval could ensure an object’s value and legitimacy. Together they wrote three seminal volumes — “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes” — that are core reference works for other experts.

The books contain letters of tribute from Cambodian officials who applaud the pair’s dedicated research and support for the national museum in Phnom Penh. In particular, they hail Mr. Latchford, who has donated rare artifacts and money to the museum, acts of generosity that led the government to knight him in 2008.

But in a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney last December in New York, Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker are identified less respectfully — as Co-Conspirator No. 1 and Co-Conspirator No. 2.

The complaint says that over a period of years the co-conspirators and others helped a prominent New York gallery owner, Nancy Wiener, falsify the documentary history of looted Cambodian relics, making them easier to market.

The Prasat Chen temple in the Koh Ker temple area in Cambodia. Credit: Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Misrepresenting the true provenance of an antiquity is essential for selling stolen items in the market,” Brenton Easter, a federal agent, said in the complaint.

Neither expert has been charged, and neither is identified by name in the complaint. Mr. Latchford is described in the complaint as “an antiquities dealer based in London and Bangkok” and Ms. Bunker as “a research consultant for an American museum.” But people familiar with the case have confirmed their identities.

The accusations in the case are hardly novel in the annals of art fraud, where the pathway to profit has long been paved with misplaced trust. But experts say this case highlights the vulnerabilities of the art world, where authenticity and ownership disputes are common and where scholarship, and the people who can wield it, often provide the imprimatur that dealers need to close sales.

“The market couldn’t function without these people,” said Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies the theft and trafficking of cultural objects. “When you have an opinion from someone like Emma Bunker and you’re a purchaser or a collector, you’re pretty sure it’s genuine.”

Ms. Wiener, 61, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of using her business “to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of antiquities stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan and Thailand.” Her lawyer, Michael McCullough, declined to comment but said several weeks ago that “Ms. Wiener has every reason to expect a favorable conclusion to the case.”

A 10th-century sandstone statue that was returned to Cambodia in 2014.
Credit: United States attorney’s Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The complaint asserts that the two experts benefited by aiding Ms. Wiener. It cites an email seized by investigators where Mr. Latchford tells her he gives bronze statues to Ms. Bunker in exchange for false provenances. As for Mr. Latchford, the complaint says some of the phony provenances were used to help market items he sold to Ms. Wiener or had bought in tandem with her.

Ms. Bunker said in a short phone interview from Wyoming that she did not recall the matters cited in the Wiener case. “I never gave a cover for anything,” she said, and referred questions to a lawyer who did not return calls.

Mr. Latchford, a Bombay-born British citizen, did not respond to requests for an interview. A close relative declined to comment.

In previous interviews, Mr. Latchford has denied any wrongdoing and defended his collecting practices as the norm for an era when far less rigor was attached to provenance and sales documents. He said in 2012 that Westerners who acquired Southeast Asian objects during the decades of war in Cambodia and Vietnam should be seen as rescuers who lavished care and scholarship on objects that might have crumbled in the jungle or been destroyed.

“If the French and other Western collectors had not preserved this art, what would be the understanding of Khmer culture today?” he said.

A dedication in the book “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” by Emma C. Bunker and Douglas A.J. Latchford.

The three books Mr. Latchford has written with Ms. Bunker display hundreds of Khmer items — deities, mythic creatures and royal treasures in sandstone, gold and bronze — that are as unique and valuable as any found in Cambodia’s national museum.

Cambodian officials say they have no record of most of the objects and rely on the books for confirmation of their existence. Asked about this in a 2014 interview, Mr. Latchford said they were held by private owners who trusted him to keep their identities confidential.

“Their books are very important for me and our own scholars,” said Chan Tani, secretary of state for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers. “There are so many objects in them that we as Cambodians have never seen.”

Ms. Bunker — “Emmy” to a legion of admiring scholars — is author of some dozen volumes on Asian art. A graduate of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, she has been affiliated for more than 40 years with the Denver Art Museum, where she sat for five years on its board, served as a volunteer researcher and last lectured in 2012.

“Bunker is a well-known authority on personal adornment in China, the art of the horse-riding tribes of the Eurasian Steppes, and Khmer art of Southeast Asia,” the museum said in introducing her last lecture, adding, “Her numerous publications have presented groundbreaking research on these subjects.”

The New York gallery owner Nancy Wiener in 2011. A criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney says she helped two experts falsify the documentary history of looted Cambodian relics.
Credit Jonathon Ziegler/Patrick McMullan

Her husband, John Birkbeck Bunker, who died in 2005, was a son of Ellsworth Bunker, a former United States ambassador to South Vietnam during the war. A Wyoming rancher, sugar executive and trustee of the Denver museum, John Bunker joined his wife in making substantial donations of art and money to the museum, and she has given other items on her own, either in tandem with family members or Mr. Latchford.

Kristy Bassuener, a spokeswoman for the Denver Art Museum, cited Ms. Bunker’s long association with the institution, but said officials were aware of the allegations against her and were seeking “to gather any new facts about objects in our collection.”

The case now entangling Ms. Bunker and Mr. Latchford is just the latest to roil the world of antiquities. Long a partner with her mother, Doris, who died in 2011, Ms. Wiener is charged with criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy, the result of a raid on her gallery last year that investigators say netted thousands of emails and other documents. One item that Mr. Latchford had consigned to Ms. Wiener for sale was seized at the time.

The complaint says she used “a laundering process that included restoration services to hide damage from illegal excavations, straw purchases at auction houses to create sham ownership histories, and the creation of false provenance to predate international laws of patrimony prohibiting the exportation of looted antiquities.”

The complaint says that some of the seized emails show Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker concocting phony ownership histories. In one, from November 2011, Ms. Bunker asked Mr. Latchford what sort of document Ms. Wiener needed regarding a bronze 10th-century Khmer statue of a Naga Buddha that Mr. Latchford was selling the dealer for $500,000. The Wiener gallery was preparing to resell it for $1.5 million.

Douglas A.J. Latchford and Emma C. Bunker.

“I wonder,” Ms. Bunker wrote to Mr. Latchford, “whether it might not be better to say that you bought it from a Thai collector when you first moved to Bangkok in the 1950s. Who, other than Neil and Yothin, knows when you acquired it.”

A month later, Ms. Bunker sent Mr. Latchford a provenance letter in which she wrote “I first saw the Naga Buddha in Douglas Latchford’s London flat sometime in the early 1970s, when I was there on my way to China.”

She identified herself in the letter as “Research Consultant Asian Department Denver Art Museum.”

In another instance, according to the complaint, Ms. Wiener and Mr. Latchford jointly bought an 11th-century statue of the Hindu god Shiva in 2008 for $250,000 from a supplier.

But when they consigned it to Sotheby’s for sale in 2011, Ms. Wiener told the auction house it had been purchased in 1968 from another antiquities dealer, Spink & Son. The complaint said they invented the ownership history and that some markings on the statue, indicative of damage and repair, led investigators to conclude the statue was looted.

Matthew F. Bogdanos, the Marine Corps Reserve colonel who led the hunt for treasures looted from the National Museum of Iraq, in 2003. Credit: Behrouz Mehri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The piece sold at auction in 2011 for $578,000.

(Sotheby’s said it had not known of any phony provenance and that such markings on ancient items are common and not necessarily evidence of looting.)

Five years ago, Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker were cited in a civil case involving a 10th-century Cambodian statue. Sotheby’s was hoping to sell the statue in New York on behalf of a Belgian collector for an estimated to $2 million to $3 million when United States officials moved to seize it, asserting it had been looted from a temple in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker were not named in the court papers, but the government identified Mr. Latchford as “The Collector,” an earlier owner of the piece who had first purchased it in the 1970s after the statue had been hacked from its temple site, its feet left behind. Ms. Bunker was cited as “The Scholar” who had counseled Sotheby’s about the sale.

In emails from 2010, before the piece was put up for sale, messages show Ms. Bunker telling Sotheby’s her concerns about the sale.

“The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker as the feet are still in situ,” she emailed a Sotheby’s officer. She counseled against selling it at public auction because “the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back.”

“Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” one of the core reference books by Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford.
Credit: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

A few weeks later, just back from Cambodia, Ms. Bunker reported that the Cambodians had no plans to ask for it back. Sotheby’s could proceed with the sale, she advised, “but perhaps not good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalog.”

Sotheby’s ended up putting the statue on the cover of its sales catalog. But the Cambodians did object, and the United States attorney in Manhattan at the time, Preet Bharara, initiated a seizure action in court. The auction house challenged whether the piece had been looted, but the case was settled and the statue was ceremonially returned to Cambodia in 2014.

At the time of the dispute, one expert spoke to how the passage of time had created new legal parameters that veteran collectors and dealers would need to observe.

“We live in a different world,” said Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Marine Corps Reserve colonel who had led the hunt for ransacked treasures during the Iraq war, “and what was acceptable 50 years ago is no longer so.”

As it turns out, Mr. Bogdanos, who is also a prosecutor in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., is now leading the Wiener investigation.

PDF of  article here

UN Moves to Stop Terrorist Financing — But More Action Needed

UN Moves to Stop Terrorist Financing — But More Action Needed

Deborah Lehr, Contributor

Chief Executive Officer, Basilinna; Senior Fellow, The Paulson Institute

03/27/2017 12:00 pm ET

U.N. Security Council in Session

On Friday, the fifteen members of the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UNSC 2347, which forcefully condemned the destruction and illicit trade of cultural heritage. Sponsored by France and Italy, the Resolution calls for measures to counter the illegal cross-border trade of artifacts of archaeological, historical, cultural, and religious importance, particularly those plundered from areas of armed conflict. Its passage marks the most significant multilateral action to fight cultural racketeering and cleansing in the United Nations’ history, but this is only a first step: coordinated, targeted, and urgent action is needed to fully end the use of cultural destruction as a terrorist financing tool and a weapon of war.

Looting of heritage has occurred for as long as there’s been buried treasure, but the world has seen an explosion of this activity since the Arab Spring. In the Middle East and North Africa, violent extremist groups have been able to turn plundered heritage into a major revenue source, given the ease of selling artifacts, the high prices these objects fetch, and the vast supply of ancient artifacts in the region. Daesh alone has earned millions smuggling and selling looted relics; a 2015 U.S. Special Forces raid targeting a senior Islamic State leader in eastern Syria uncovered receipts for antiquities transactions worth $1.3 million for only a three-month period.

Destruction or trafficking of cultural racketeering poses an international security risk not only because it finances conflict; it often serves as an early warning sign of atrocities. Some of the century’s worst actors demolished and plundered heritage in order to terrorize and deny the historical roots of populations under their control. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge led the deliberate and systematic destruction of targeted ethnic and religious groups and their heritage, before murdering two million people — a fourth of the population — through starvation, disease, and execution. Destruction of heritage also harms societies long after the armed conflict ends, by creating sustained long-term economic damage and undermining post-conflict resolution.

Fortunately, the international community is taking steps to recognize the threats that cultural racketeering and cleansing post to international security and peace, and to act to end these practices. UNSC 2347 is just the latest step in a series of actions by governments to protect heritage. Major market countries like the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all recently strengthened their legislation and enforcement tools to prevent an influx of conflict of antiquities from the Middle East. And, in one of the most promising signals of international action in recent years, six countries — also led by France — pledged more than $75 million last week to a new UNESCO-backed alliance to protect cultural heritage sites threatened by war. Further donations are expected at this coming week’s meeting of G7 culture ministers meeting in Florence.

Legal reforms and greater financial support are essential for protecting cultural heritage and should be applauded. However, they are not sufficient. To truly eradicate war crimes involving heritage, greater action is needed from all sectors of the international community, including law enforcement, individuals, museums, dealers and auction houses, national governments, and multilateral government organizations. Three key steps are needed:

First, national and international law enforcement bodies need to strengthen prosecution efforts. In September, the International Criminal Court issued its first war crime conviction for cultural crimes. The international community must build on this momentum and refer similar crimes, particularly those perpetrated in active war zones such as Iraq and Syria, to the ICC for trial. Likewise, the United States and other market countries have done excellent work recovering and repatriating looted antiquities to their home countries, but few of these cases have resulted in arrests, indictments, or prosecutions. The focus should shift to dismantling trafficking networks through criminal prosecution to serve as a meaningful deterrent.

Second, the illicit trade in antiquities is to a great degree facilitated by lack of awareness; buyers need to learn to identify red flags that suggest that objects have been looted and smuggled. One basic rule is to steer clear of art and artifacts lacking provenance or with proof of ownership that does not date to 1970, the international standard. Antiquities of cultural, historical, or religious significance and those created for non-commercial purposes should also be avoided; many others were never meant for commercial trade and their presence in auction houses should be a warning sign for buyers. Governments and museums can help educate buyers, but the onus should also be on auction houses, art dealers, and other private sector actors.

Finally, more support for source country governments to strengthen their borders and protections of the sites would go far in stemming the supply of illicit antiquities. The Security Council Resolution calls for adoption of more effective export and import regulations of cultural property; this, as well as training of border patrol and customs agents, would go far in keeping heritage within borders. Support from United Nations peacekeeping operations, to assist relevant authorities in the protection of cultural heritage from destruction, illicit excavation, looting and smuggling in the context of armed conflicts, should also be pursued.

Upon the Resolution’s passage, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova addressed the Security Council, stating that “the deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime…defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.”

As Irina Bokova noted, we need more than weapons to defeat violent extremism: we need collective action to protect heritage and to end its use as a financing tool for conflict and a psychological weapon of war. That’s the spirit behind the Antiquities Coalition’s #CultureUnderThreat initiative, a series of forums, research materials, and reports that create awareness and build capacity to combat cultural racketeering and cleansing. With coordinated and urgent action, the international community can build on the success of Friday’s unanimous vote and end this practice forever.

Deborah Lehr is Chairman/Founder and Tess Davis is the Executive Director of the Washington, DC- based Antiquities Coalition.

PDF of article here

Buyer Beware: US Market for Ancient Asian Art Still the Wild, Wild East

Buyer Beware: US Market for Ancient Asian Art Still the Wild, Wild East

Cultural treasures stolen from conflict zones continue to pop up for sale in the United States and elsewhere.

By Tess Davis | March 14, 2017

Art and antiquities have financed some of the last century’s worst actors — from organized criminals to drug cartels, mafia syndicates, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the IRA, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic State. Yet public policy still treats the illicit trade in cultural property as a white collar, victimless crime. This must change: cultural racketeering is a not just a threat to our world heritage, but to human rights and global security.

History, through the Cambodian Civil War, offers valuable lessons for facing this ongoing crisis today. In the 1970s, in the shadow of the kingdom’s celebrated 12th century temple of Angkor Wat, fighting erupted between government forces and the Khmer Rouge. Decades of conflict, genocide, and foreign occupation followed.

The war triggered an organized trade in blood antiquities, which helped bankroll further campaigns of violence. Centuries worth of sacred relics were trafficked from the “Killing Fields,” and then sold overseas to the highest bidder, with few questions asked. And while many disappeared into the black market, countless masterpieces were laundered into America’s top auction houses, art galleries, and museums — where they remain today.

Cultural racketeering did not just fund violence — it served as an early warning sign of genocide. The Khmer Rouge led the deliberate and systematic destruction of targeted ethnic and religious groups and their heritage, a practice known as cultural cleansing, much as Islamic State is doing in Iraq and Syria. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 3,369 Buddhist pagodas, 130 mosques, and all 73 of the country’s churches before murdering two million people — a fourth of the population — through starvation, disease, and execution.

Fortunately, despite staggering losses, much of Cambodia’s great ancient history survived this dark period. Sites such as Angkor Wat have helped serve as an economic engine driving the recovery, particularly through cultural tourism. But, nearly four decades since the Khmer Rouge was toppled, Cambodia is looking to bring home the heritage that was taken from it.

Five years ago, Phnom Penh launched an international campaign to bring home its stolen masterpieces. The Royal Government of Cambodia has made this effort a priority, with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An taking an active role and Secretary of State Chan Tani leading the negotiations. They have recovered millions of dollars worth of looted masterpieces from America’s leading auction houses and museums — all of which were plundered in the chaos leading up to the Killing Fields from areas under Khmer Rouge control, making them “blood antiquities” in every sense of the name.

U.S. law enforcement, too, is joining the effort. In recent years, Homeland Security Investigations, the Manhattan District Attorney, and the Department of Justice all have been successful in dismantling major antiquities smuggling networks, many of which actively trafficked in looted pieces from Cambodia and throughout Asia. Some of Manhattan’s leading auction houses and galleries have been implicated; one dealer, Nancy Wiener, is now facing felony charges.

Still, the international community has far to go before the illicit trade in Cambodian heritage is stopped. Given the country’s bloody history, absent evidence to the contrary, its ancient art should be considered guilty until proven innocent. Yet a quick search of an auction catalog or museum database quickly reveals that even today, with rare exception, most Cambodian artifacts in the United States have no ownership history predating 1970 — the year the war and its looting began, and coincidentally, also the “bright line” date under international law by which antiquities should have left their country of origin, for their purchase to be licit.

The same is true of artifacts from Afghanistan to India to China, for the global market in Asian antiquities has long operated as the “Wild East” of the art world. Sales are full of sacred objects — which were never meant to be traded — plundered from areas of conflict. Regulation remains next to nonexistent in this multi-million dollar industry, which has been content to look the other way and ask few questions about how so many masterpieces ended up in international auction houses.

Cambodia’s story is a warning for the art world, but also for the international community.  Over the past century, we’ve watched brutal regimes, extremists, and organized criminals all traffic in heritage to fund their activities. We’ve seen that trafficking is not just a side effect of armed conflict; it is a driver of violence. And we’ve learned that the illicit trade in heritage can far outlive the conflicts that created them, and that peace can, counterintuitively, open up new markets and buyers for antiquities.

The international community must put policies and practices into place that will prevent these human and cultural atrocities in the future. Here are but three changes that would make a big difference.

First, the illicit trade in antiquities depends on supply and demand — so market countries should immediately close their borders to conflict antiquities. The United States is to be commended for restricting the import of Iraqi and Syrian artifacts, but that policy must be expanded to other areas of conflict, such as Libya and Yemen.

Second, cultural heritage protection should be included in all peacekeeping mandates, and prioritized throughout the post-conflict period.

And, third, crimes against culture must be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes, recognizing they are first and foremost attacks against people.

Our laws and policy toward cultural racketeering failed Cambodia, and are now failing Iraq and Syria. While we do not know where tomorrow’s global hotspots will be, we do know that cultural racketeering will play a dangerous role in driving conflict — so we must act urgently, decisively, and collectively to end this practice.

Tess Davis, a lawyer and archaeologist, is Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. She has been a legal consultant for the Cambodian and U.S. governments and works with both the art world and law enforcement to keep looted antiquities off the market.  In 2015, the Royal Government of Cambodia knighted Davis for her work to recover the country’s plundered treasures, awarding her the rank of Commander in the Royal Order of the Sahametrei.

PDF of article here

Journal Of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology And Heritage Studies

The Antiquities Coalition’s Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr published an article in the latest issue of The Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (JEMAHS), a peer-reviewed journal published by the Pennsylvania State University Press.  In the article, Lehr discusses future directions for protecting #CultureUnderThreat and the efforts and programs of the Antiquities Coalition to help combat looting and cultural racketeering.

PDF of full article here

PSW 2375 Saving the Past

PSW 2375 Saving the Past

Culture has become a weapon of war and a fundraising tool for violent extremist organizations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Millions of archaeological, historic, and religious sites in the MENA region are under threat from organized plunder or destruction from armed conflict and violent extremist organizations. This lecture discussed how the illicit trade in antiquities is funding terrorism in the Middle East and beyond and shared what can be done to halt this dark trade.