Emma C. Bunker’s name is hard to avoid when strolling through the Denver Art Museum’s fifth-floor galleries.
Visitors entering the Southeast Asian wing are welcomed to the Bunker Gallery, her name displayed in large white lettering, lit up on the forest green wall.
The scholar’s gifts are featured in nearly every Asian art exhibit, which showcase exquisite wonders from across the continent: Palanquin hooks from Cambodia, mythical birds from Indonesia, bronze bracelets from Iran, tiles with lotus heads from Turkey.
After Bunker’s death last year at 90, the museum dedicated an Asian art acquisition fund in her honor, celebrating six decades of contributions to a collection the museum touts as “one of the finest of its kind in North America.”
A longtime museum consultant and leading scholar, Bunker helped assemble the Denver institution’s 7,000-piece Asian art collection through her relationships with some of the world’s biggest antiquities collectors.
But those close ties also turned the Denver Art Museum into a way station for looted art.
Bunker’s relationship to one disgraced dealer in particular, Douglas Latchford, led the museum to acquire pieces that had been pillaged from Cambodia’s sacred temples. And now artifacts from Thailand in the museum’s collection are under scrutiny.
Connections with museums were a crucial piece of Latchford’s long-running illicit antiquities scheme, investigators and experts in the art trade say: The Thailand-based collector and dealer spent decades loaning and gifting prized artifacts to prominent museums like Denver’s, which he used to legitimate his collection. With items behind glass cases, Latchford could tell prospective buyers that his goods were clean — and worth big money.
“Latchford used Denver as a laundromat to tell people that there must be no problem with the pieces because they’ve been in museums,” said Bradley J. Gordon, an attorney leading Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim its plundered history.
The second installment of The Denver Post’s three-part series on Bunker and the global illicit antiquities trade focuses on the integral role of museums in validating plundered art — and the curators, scholars and dealers that make it possible.
Stolen relics, laundered art and a Colorado scholar’s role in the illicit antiquities trade
Part 1: Unmasking “The Scholar”: The Colorado woman who helped a global art smuggling operation flourish for decades
Part 2: How the Denver Art Museum became a “laundromat” for stolen Asian relics
Part 3: The global hunt for a secret cache of stolen Thai treasures runs through Denver
The Post’s year-long investigation calls into question how much the Denver Art Museum should have known about the consultant helping fill its glass cases, and why officials there continue to celebrate Bunker’s contributions in the face of criminal suspicion.
And the series details the largely unknown story of how Latchford, through Bunker’s scholarship, directed a hidden trove of stolen Thai treasures from the hands of poor rice farmers to galleries in Denver and around the globe.
The Denver Art Museum became one of Latchford’s primary landing spots as he sought to burnish his reputation. The institution housed more looted pieces of his than any other collection aside from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the “Pandora Papers” investigation found last year.
All told, the Denver museum spent more than a half-million dollars on Latchford pieces, and he loaned, gifted or sold the museum more than a dozen ancient artifacts — deals made possible and shepherded along by Bunker, court records and previously unreported emails show.
Bunker helped Latchford falsify provenances — or ownership history — for pieces known to be stolen, the records show. She gave presentations about his collection, wrote scholarly articles and books highlighting his works and talked to wealthy collectors as her friend negotiated six- and seven-figure sales.
“She was extremely important to helping his looting flourish,” said Angela Chiu, an independent scholar who has studied the Asian antiquities trade extensively.
Now the Cambodians want to see the Denver Art Museum’s records for any pieces that passed through Latchford or Bunker’s hands — but officials say the museum has refused.
Three of Bunker’s surviving children did not respond to The Post or declined to comment for this series. Harriet Bunker, one of Emma’s daughters, said the allegations against her mother didn’t fit the profile of the woman she knew and loved.
“I really have a hard time believing that my mom was an art smuggler,” she said.
Representatives of the Denver Art Museum declined multiple interview requests for this series. Instead, they responded to emailed questions, defending the museum’s association with Bunker and blaming Latchford for providing falsified documents.
“Naming the Bunker Gallery was in recognition of the family’s lifetime of support of the museum,” Denver Art Museum officials said.
“I want the gods to come home”
Latchford, a British citizen who spent much of his life in Thailand, was a prolific collector and dealer, amassing one of the world’s largest private collections of Cambodian antiquities.
He was beloved in Cambodia for decades, helping the National Museum pay for badly needed upgrades and donating several pieces to its collection. The government even bestowed upon Latchford the equivalent of a knighthood in 2008 and invited him to become a citizen.
But in multiple court cases, beginning in 2012, the sheen on Latchford’s dealings started to wear away. Authorities alleged that the Bangkok dealer — with Bunker’s assistance — falsified provenances in order to sell objects the Cambodians said were looted from the nation’s ancient temples.
In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted Latchford on five counts, including wire fraud and smuggling, accusing him of bringing illicit antiquities into the United States. He died in 2020 before he could stand trial.
Latchford over and over again sold, loaned and gifted pieces to the Denver Art Museum — and that was no accident.
“Cultivating her longtime friendship with Douglas A.J. Latchford, (Bunker) encouraged him to donate and lend several major examples of Southeast Asian art to the museum,” Mary Lanius and Ronald Otsuka, former Denver museum curators, wrote in a 2007 article.
But years after their acquisition, the Cambodians said these items were all stolen — and enlisted the U.S. government’s help to get them back.
Federal prosecutors, in a forfeiture complaint filed last year, outlined how Bunker helped her friend get four relics — including a prehistoric bell, and ancient sandstone statues and lintels — on display at her hometown museum. (She’s not named in the complaint, but a review of past cases confirms Bunker is the “Scholar” mentioned.)
“Over the years, the Scholar assisted Latchford on many occasions by verifying or vouching for the proffered provenance of Khmer antiquities that Latchford was trying to sell,” prosecutors wrote.
In the case of the four Denver items, Bunker “facilitated the sale and donation… including by vouching for their provenance,” the court document read.
The government had moved to seize the antiquities that had been in the Denver museum for two decades. Prosecutors’ evidence largely came from testimony given to the Cambodian team by a former looter named Toek Tik, who recalled stealing the four items from temple sites.
Tik, who died in December, joined the Khmer Rouge at the age of 10, working with his father throughout the 1980s and ‘90s to loot Khmer objects from its thousand-year-old temples.
But he spent his final two years atoning for his past work, collaborating with Gordon and the Cambodian team to track down relics in foreign museums and private collections.
“I regret what I did,” Tik told The New York Times last year. “I want the gods to come home.”
In May 2000, Latchford agreed to loan a 12th-to-13th-century Prajnaparamita statue and a 7th-to-8th-century sandstone Surya sculpture to the Denver Art Museum, prosecutors said.
But he gave the museum contradictory provenance information, authorities alleged. At various times, Latchford told the museum that he acquired the Prajnaparamita from a man prosecutors called the “false collector” — Ian Donaldson — in 1999, while also providing the museum documents purporting to show that both pieces were shipped from Latchford’s Bangkok apartment to London in 1994.
He donated the Prajnaparamita in Bunker’s honor, the former museum curators wrote in the 2007 article.
“A representation of the Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom was a fitting tribute to Bunker,” the authors note, “who has great knowledge of Cambodian bronze and stone sculpture.”
Latchford assured a museum curator that the sandstone statue arrived in the United States in June 1999, months before the federal government declared an emergency embargo on the importation of stone Khmer antiquities, designed to crack down on the widespread sale of looted relics from Cambodia.
But authorities say Latchford shipped the pieces in May 2000, after the embargo was in place.
Four months later, the Denver Art Museum purchased the Prajnaparamita for $358,000. On the bill of sale, Latchford said he had bought the statue from Donaldson in 1989, prosecutors alleged, the third acquisition date he gave the museum during their correspondence.
A museum curator emailed Bunker 11 days after the sale, according to the complaint, noting the 1970 UNESCO Convention restrictions on removing objects during war. The curator asked the scholar for more details on the Prajnaparamita and where it was “dug up.”
Bunker replied that Donaldson “is very ill in a hospital,” the government alleged, and that if the museum needed anything signed, Latchford would have to try to get it. She added that Donaldson “has no idea where it came from” and that he “was never a soldier in Vietnam, so this did not come out during the war” (Latchford and another disgraced dealer, Nancy Wiener, used Donaldson repeatedly to vouch for the provenance of looted goods, investigators alleged, even after the Hong Kong-based businessman had long been dead. Donaldson, in his will, called Latchford a friend, and even left him a condo in Bangkok, along with an expensive Patek Philippe watch and a crystal apple.)
Denver Art Museum officials, when asked by The Post why the museum purchased an artifact with three conflicting provenances, said Latchford had provided them with forged documentation.
In 2005, Latchford donated an Iron Age bronze bell and a 7th-to-8th-century sandstone lintel to the museum as gifts, providing “limited provenance information to the museum for either piece,” prosecutors said.
He previously had tried to sell two similar bells to private American collectors, authorities alleged, sending photos of the artifacts encrusted with dirt and minerals, “a sign of recent excavation.”
A decade later, a researcher from the Denver Art Museum sent Latchford an email. She was looking into the provenance of the six items he donated or sold to the museum between 2000 and 2006 — “beautiful artifacts” that “enhanced the depth and breadth of the collection,” the researcher said — and which remained on display in the fifth-floor galleries.
But someone purporting to be Latchford’s secretary replied hours later that she was unable to pass along the message because Latchford was undergoing medical care “and his doctor stipulated that (he) not be disturbed,” according to the email. Latchford’s daughter, after his death, shared troves of his emails with the Cambodians, some of which were reviewed by The Post for this series. “As soon as he is well and sufficiently strong, I will bring your letter to his attention.”
Museum officials told The Post that a grant allowed for provenance research in its Asian art collection, but that this research wasn’t specific to Latchford’s pieces.
In a statement last year, museum officials said they contacted Cambodian authorities immediately after Latchford’s 2019 indictment to bring the four pieces “to their attention, and gather additional information.”
The Cambodians, however, say the Denver institution has been less forthright than its public statements indicate.
“They weren’t honest brokers,” said Gordon, the attorney leading the government’s repatriation team.
Museum officials never disclosed their 2015 emails with Latchford while in talks with the Cambodians, Gordon said, and didn’t acknowledge that they had had any questions previously about the pieces.
“It was really incredible that I had multiple conversations with them and they didn’t tell me,” Gordon said. “They know a lot more than we do.”
The museum said it “disagrees with Mr. Gordon,” citing its outreach in 2019.
While the Cambodians were grateful to get back the four pieces from Denver in August, they’re still waiting for the museum to give up documents relating to those deals and others.
In a June 2021 email, Gordon asked the museum’s lawyer to provide provenance records for all Khmer objects that passed through the hands of Latchford, Bunker or any other dealers.
“We hope that with this information and your resolving issues with the U.S. government, we can move forward with a positive relationship between Cambodia and (the) Denver Art Museum,” Gordon wrote in the email, which was reviewed by The Post.
Eighteen months later, the museum still hasn’t responded or sent any records, he said.
“We’re putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Gordon said, likening each looted temple to a crime scene. “For them to be hiding information doesn’t seem ethical.”
Museum officials said Gordon suggested the museum “work directly with the (Department of Justice) regarding the process for returning works to Cambodia.”
“The museum has done so, including providing all records to the DOJ regarding the returned pieces,” the statement said.
“An unlikely place for Cambodian sculptures”
The Denver Art Museum, through Bunker’s affiliation, became a way station for Latchford’s prized objects, and he used loans and gifts to the museum to legitimize his collection and market his artifacts for sale to other wealthy buyers.
Latchford loaned, gifted or sold 14 pieces to Denver’s museum between 1999 and 2011, according to museum records. They included the four relics returned to Cambodia in August and two objects from Thailand — a neolithic vessel and cabinet — that remain in the museum’s collection.
He also loaned four items to the museum that later were purchased by James Clark, the billionaire co-founder of Netscape.
In 2004, Clark was in the midst of buying $35 million in Khmer antiquities from Latchford. But in emails, the wealthy internet pioneer expressed concerns that Cambodia might, at some point, push for their repatriation.
So Latchford sought to assuage Clark, telling him in a letter that he had previously donated major pieces to prominent museums, including the Denver Art Museum. He cited one specific piece — a large Vishnu statue — that he had loaned to Denver in 2002 as proof of his legitimate acumen.
“All of the pieces you are considering have been published and/or on loan to museums for several years, and if there was any question of asking for them back, it would have happened long before now,” Latchford wrote in the email, which was reviewed by The Post.
Clark bought that 10th-century sandstone Vishnu statue, along with two Avalokitesvara pieces and a thousand-year-old Yaksha that were in Denver’s art museum. The Vishnu and tge Yaksha were published in Bunker and Latchford’s 2004 book “Adoration and Glory” and attributed as “anonymous loans to the Denver Art Museum.”
These same pieces showed up in a January forfeiture filing as federal prosecutors sought Clark’s looted collection that came from Latchford.
Bunker was part of the dealer’s sales pitch, emails show.
Clark’s decorator, in one 2004 email to Latchford, said she had “talked at length” with Bunker about repatriation. Three years later, as Clark sought to purchase more of Latchford’s treasures, Latchford suggested the businessman use Bunker to provide a valuation for the items.
Bunker in 2004 even prepared a presentation for Latchford on the sculptures he was offering for sale, federal prosecutors alleged in the forfeiture filing.
She wasn’t the direct saleswoman, Gordon said. “But she was definitely an enabler.”
“If Emma wasn’t in Denver, would Denver really end up with Khmer pieces?” the attorney said. “It’s an unlikely place for Cambodian sculptures to end up.”
In January, Clark gave up the entire lot after federal investigators told him the relics had been stolen. (The businessman couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Over four years, Latchford lied to Clark and withheld information about the origins of the pieces he was selling, the federal complaint alleged. The Bangkok dealer supplied him with false provenance documents. Many of the items, authorities said, were then illegally imported into the United States based on false statements Latchford and others supplied to border control agents.
Prosecutors used one of Latchford’s loans to the Denver Art Museum — the eight-armed Avalokitesvara statue — as an example of how Latchford marketed items to Clark.
The dealer told Clark, as he previously had told Denver’s museum, that he had purchased the artifact from an individual who authorities called the “false collector,” aka Donaldson.
A Denver Art Museum spokesperson told The Post in January that the sculpture was on loan to the museum from February 2001 through December 2003.
“The museum was not a party to the acquisition or sale of this piece, and has no details about those transactions,” said Kristy Bassuener, a museum spokesperson.
But emails show Latchford tried to enlist a Denver museum curator to help transfer at least one artifact to Clark.
In April 2006, an employee of Clark’s emailed an Asian art curator at the museum to ask about coordinating the shipping and installation of a piece to Clark’s New York City residence. Latchford is copied on the email.
Dealers normally handle logistics themselves for delivering artwork, said Chiu, the independent art scholar. A curator, even if the piece was on loan to a museum, should only be expected to provide museum access to the dealer’s agents. Going above and beyond that, arranging the logistics themselves, would be “unusual and outside the normal duties of a curator,” she said.
“This raises grave concerns about ethics,” Chiu said. “Does the Denver Art Museum actually allow its curators to be involved in private art sales between individuals?”
There was no indication in Latchford’s emails seen by The Post that the curator responded. But the museum, in an email responding to questions from The Post, said staff assisted in coordinating the de-installation of the three loaned works sold to Clark that year, as well as the museum side of the shipment to the new owner.
“Such activities are common practice for museum staff for loaned pieces that are sold,” the statement said.
Museums, as nonprofit entities, are not supposed to participate in commercial transactions. Many, in fact, have policies forbidding the exhibition of works that are known — or expected — to be for sale.
The fact that Latchford did this multiple times with the Denver Art Museum raises serious questions about whether officials there violated a fiduciary duty to the museum or the public, said Amanda Nelson, an attorney who specializes in art and museum law.
“It becomes a question of how long can they plausibly deny this was Latchord’s pattern to use them to market his pieces?” she said.
Andy Sinclair, a museum spokesperson, said in an email that the museum was not aware the relics loaned by Latchford were for sale until the dealer requested they be shipped to Clark.
The museum’s loans policy, she said, is standard for the field.
Crucial to a museum’s survival
Museums often have different standards for items they purchase versus ones that are donated by wealthy collectors, experts in the illicit antiquities trade say.
With donors, museums can be reluctant to push them too hard or ask too many questions, said prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, who runs the Antiquities Trade Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York City. The vast majority of seizures by his office come from donations, he said.
Trust is key. If a no-name person comes to a big museum or gallery with a prized relic, they’ll be subjected to far more scrutiny than a person of Latchford’s status.
This is the other thing that the Bangkok dealer perfected, Bogdanos said: “He simply wasn’t scrutinized.”
It only takes a few years of a plundered piece being exhibited in museums before buyers are satisfied that it’s legitimate, a federal investigator said in a 2016 interview.
Latchford wasn’t the only antiquities dealer to use the Denver Art Museum — and other institutions — in this fashion.
Subhash Kapoor, who once ran a prominent New York City gallery called “Art of the Past,” gifted or sold 31 pieces from India to the Denver Art Museum over three decades. This summer, the museum gave up 22 of those artifacts after New York investigators said they were stolen, part of Kapoor’s alleged long-running scheme to sell plundered art. Kapoor was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison by an Indian court, and still faces similar charges in the United States.
“Kapoor would also loan stolen antiquities to major museums and institutions,” prosecutors alleged in a 185-page criminal complaint in 2019, “creating yet another false veneer of legitimacy by its mere presence in otherwise reputable museums and institutions.”
For American museums, loans and donations aren’t just nice to have. They’re crucial to a museum’s survival.
More than 90% of the art collections held in public trust by America’s art museums were donated by private individuals, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors. Part of that is owed to the generous tax breaks afforded to donors under the American tax code.
“You’re going to be friendly toward a terrific collector with objects you covet for the museum,” said Jacqueline Simcox, a London art dealer.
“It’s the end of an era”
Those in the industry acknowledge times have changed in the global art world — and museums are scrambling to change with it.
The important question for museums or collectors used to be whether the item at hand was real or fake, never mind the provenance.
“People who matured in the ‘60s, they believed in the art market,” said Hiram Woodward, a friend of Bunker’s and former curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “They believed in the general good created by private collecting. They believed that objects from origin countries should be exhibited in American art museums.”
Dealers in the mid-20th century, let alone before then, did not always keep or share detailed records, museum officials have said in response to recent questions about allegedly stolen artifacts in its collections.
“The norms of collecting have changed significantly in recent decades,” the Met said in September after investigators seized more than two dozen looted artifacts from its collection.
In 1973, a curator with the Cleveland Museum of Art estimated that 95% of ancient art materials in the United States had been smuggled in.
“Unless you’re naïve or not very bright,” John D. Cooney, the curator, told The New York Times, “you’d have to know that much ancient art here is stolen.”
Cooney, in his transactions, said he was only concerned about whether an object had legal entry into the country.
“Even if I know it’s hot,” he told The Times, “I can’t be concerned about that. If the museums in this country began to send back all the smuggled material to their countries of origin, the museum walls would be bare.”
But this line of thinking is also what Western collectors and museums want to project, said Erin Thompson, an art crime professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She compared it to cigarettes decades ago, when people said they didn’t know how harmful smoking could be.
“You have to be incredibly stupid to have a Cambodian antiquity and not know where these things were coming from,” she said. “It wasn’t just ignorance — people were assembling justifications for why it was OK to be buying these things.”
Bunker, Latchford and others would defend their practices in interviews and articles, saying if not for Western collectors, many of these artifacts would be destroyed in civil war or other conflicts.
Museums have an obligation to closely research the provenance of pieces in their collections to make sure they’re not displaying stolen goods, advocates say.
“Museums are often the front line of this,” Tatum King, the special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in San Francisco, said during a 2021 repatriation ceremony. “And we need their help.”
It’s an awkward position for museums. Most curators and other staff have long since changed over from when controversial pieces were acquired. And the incentives have always pushed museums to increase their collections, not decrease them.
Institutions that long have held high public approval ratings are now increasingly under the microscope.
“It’s the end of an era for being the unquestioned good guys,” Thompson said.
Honoring a complicated legacy
Despite serious allegations across civil and criminal court cases, the Denver Art Museum continues to celebrate Bunker.
After her death, the museum invited friends and family to unveil the Bunker Gallery on the fifth floor of the Martin Building in downtown Denver. This happened, the museum said, after the Bunker family made an unspecified donation to the building’s capital campaign.
Its exhibits still display 34 works gifted by Bunker or jointly with her husband. Another 187 pieces from the couple remain in the museum’s collection.
The Asian art acquisition fund launched in the scholar’s honor has raised $25,000.
“She loved the Denver Art Museum,” said Tianlong Jiao, a former museum curator. “She was a very generous donor… she was a very generous lady. She left a great legacy for Denver. I think people should appreciate her contribution to the community rather than focus on the negative, unfortunate connection with Latchford.”
Several art crime experts and historians said they were astounded the museum would choose to name a gallery in Bunker’s honor, and is raising money in her name to purchase more antiquities from a part of the globe that she’s accused of helping pillage.
“How can the museum deny it has a provenance problem when the name of a looter is up on the wall?” Thompson asked. “The gallery name shows the museum was once proud of its relationship with someone who could help it fill its galleries — as long as it didn’t ask too many questions.”
Chiu, the independent art expert, said she found the acquisition fund “shameful.” Gordon, the attorney representing Cambodia, called it “disturbing.”
“She was so close to Douglas and so involved with his commercial ventures that it just seems extremely inappropriate to set up an acquisition fund in her memory,” Gordon said.
Asked about whether it was appropriate to name the gallery after Bunker, given the serious allegations, Denver Art Museum officials cited her decades of service as a volunteer and board member. They also referenced her family’s donations to the museum’s collections.
As for Bunker’s contributions that still grace the museum’s glass cases?
“Repatriate unless they have legal export permits,” Thompson said.
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