The Latest

AC Executive Director Tess Davis Calls for Strengthened Due Diligence in The Australian

February 23, 2021

The National Gallery of Australia has declined to reveal what it knows about the provenance of three of its collection’s statues due to a “past agreement,” journalist Michaela Boland first reported in The Australian on February 16. A more in-depth follow-up piece was published soon after.

In 2011, the NGA paid $1.5 million for the 50-centimeter-tall gilt bronze Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani figure, which it has been described on the NGA’s website as “the finest and most intact Cham bronze known,” and two 30-centimeter-tall attendants. All three are presumed to have been made by the Cham people of Vietnam in the 9th or 10th centuries.

However, these artifacts have not been on display since 2016.

“The chain of ownership for this object is being reviewed and further research is underway,” the NGA’s website reads.

Prior to the NGA’s purchase, John Guy—which The Australian has described as “one of the world authorities on Southeast Asian antiquities”—claimed in The Cham of Vietnam: History, Society and Art that these artifacts had likely been “recovered by illicit diggers” in Vietnam and eventually trafficked by disgraced art dealer Douglas Latchford.

“Any object associated with Douglas Latchford should be considered a conflict antiquity until proven otherwise,” Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis told The Australian, which referred to the Antiquities Coalition as “the world’s foremost organisation combating cultural racketeering.”

“Latchford was the mastermind of an infamous criminal network, which plundered countless masterpieces from the war zones of Southeast Asia and trafficked them into the art world’s top collections. Since 2012 he was in the crosshairs of American prosecutors, and he died last year under a felony indictment fighting extradition to New York,” Davis explained. “His customers can no longer feign plausible deniability. The NGA and the many other museums with Latchford’s loot have now had years to do the right thing. Any objects with any ties to him should have long been treated as stolen property until proven otherwise. The link to him alone should have sounded every alarm.”

This is not the first time the NGA has taken an artifact with dubious provenance into its collection. Detailed information about several of the NGA’s questionable acquisitions—including much more about the Cham statue controversy—can be found in Boland’s stories, linked again here and here.

“The NGA’s behaviour is negligent at best and an affront to both the Vietnamese people and Australian taxpayers,” Davis told The Australian. “It’s also incredibly damaging to the legitimate art market, which is already struggling against growing accusations of antiquities trafficking, money laundering and even terrorist financing.”

For more information on these growing accusations, check out our Financial Crimes Task Force Report.