Looters, smugglers, dealers work together to pull off global art heists

Illicit antiquity networks generally operate in a similar fashion, whether they’re in the Middle East, southern Europe or Southeast Asia, heritage crime experts and law enforcement officials say.

And there are a lot of necessary players — the local looters who know the lay of the land, the middlemen smuggling objects over borders, the high-end dealers with connections to wealthy collectors and prominent museums.

Another key player: the respected scholar.

“Everyone’s got an Emma Bunker,” said Matthew Bogdanos, a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York City. The former Marine runs the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, spearheading some of the country’s largest art theft investigations.

“They all have one thing in common,” he said. “They’re all for sale.”

Bunker, a Coloradan who died last year, was a prolific scholar, publishing extensively on Chinese and Southeast Asian art. She spent decades as a volunteer, board member and consultant with the Denver Art Museum, which named its Southeast Asian art gallery in her honor.

But in the decade before her death, the scholar’s sterling reputation took a hit.

She was named or referenced in five civil and criminal cases surrounding the sale of illicit antiquities, though never directly charged or sued herself. Bunker was particularly close with Douglas Latchford, a Bangkok-based dealer and collector, who died in 2020 after a federal grand jury indicted him on a host of charges related to smuggling illicit antiquities.

Court records and personal emails show Bunker used her lofty position and museum credentials to help her good friend fabricate ownership histories for looted artifacts and market his stolen antiquities to wealthy collectors and museums such as Denver’s.

The scholar usually keeps their hands cleaner, experts say. They’re not normally digging for treasures — or selling them — themselves. But their writing is nonetheless crucial.

Bunker and Latchford are credited with co-writing three books (Bunker acknowledged in emails that she actually wrote them), and she authored a host of other articles on Southeast Asian art. In almost every case, she spotlighted Latchford’s pieces.

And that’s no accident, experts say.

“Publishing a photograph of a looted antiquity is a common laundering practice,” a federal agent wrote in a 2016 criminal complaint.

Getting an item published in a book gives it an air of legitimacy, experts say, facilitating its sale.

“This respectable person is making it respectable by trafficking in looted antiquities so it must be OK for me to purchase it, display it, etc.,” said Erin Thompson, an art crime professor with New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

A statue’s actual theft is normally not the dangerous segment of the heist, investigators say. It’s during shipping when things can get dicey.

That’s when falsified provenances, or ownership history, come into play. Someone like Latchford needs to manufacture a history for the piece — and they need a well-regarded voice like Bunker’s to vouch for it.

“Misrepresenting the true provenance of an antiquity is essential for selling stolen items in the market,” a federal agent wrote in a 2016 criminal complaint, “because false provenance prevents the items from being easily traced and enables ownership records to be falsified to predate the patrimony laws of the antiquity’s country of origin.”

Latchford and other illicit antiquities dealers would also pin provenances on a dead collector. Latchford and Nancy Wiener, a New York gallery owner who pleaded guilty last year to trafficking stolen artifacts, used the same individual repeatedly: Ian Donaldson, a Hong Kong-based collector who died in 2001.

It became a running joke in the Manhattan DA’s office — another provenance from Ian Donaldson. In some cases, he was posted to Vietnam when he acquired a particular object. In others, he was in Hong Kong.

These shady dealers would photocopy provenances to use in multiple sales, investigators say.

And customs officers in the U.S. wouldn’t know how to spot the forgeries.

A “socially destructive illicit trade”

Once a looted object has made it out of the source country, it needs to be cleaned of any evidence that it had been ripped from a temple or yanked off a pedestal. Enter the art restorer, someone who removes dirt, debris or rust.

“I avoided asking questions, because I was suspicious that the answers would reveal that the objects were stolen,” one restorer told a New York court after pleading guilty to assisting in a large looted-antiquities ring, according to an account published in The Atlantic.

After an object is cleaned up, dealers sell pieces back and forth to one another. Latchford and Wiener did this often, prosecutors alleged, a tactic designed to create sham provenances and artificially boost market prices.

Sellers don’t often offer a guarantee of the legality of an object at the sale and buyers don’t require it in most cases, experts say. It’s accepted in the art market for anonymous donors to sell pieces from unnamed private collections, making it difficult to determine a true ownership history.

On top of all that, many pieces on the art market date back centuries, sometimes millennia, adding to the difficult task of tracking origins across changing borders and varying patrimony laws.

“With a drug case, you identify where and when it (happened), but with this kind of case, you have to really dig into the century and what was going on there,” said Greg Wertsch, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations focusing on global trade. “Who was involved at that time? Who was in charge? It gets very, very complicated.”

Looted art, until recent years, hasn’t been treated as a serious crime. But that’s changing as federal and state prosecutions take aim at dealers, collectors and museums alike. Countries like Cambodia are aggressively seeking the return of their plundered heritage.

“This is a culturally destructive, socially destructive illicit trade” that deserves law enforcement resources, said Samuel Hardy, ​​head of illicit trade research with the Heritage Management Organization.

The Manhattan DA’s Office, in particular, has been aggressive in seizing artifacts believed to be looted. Bogdanos’ team has obtained nine search warrants since 2017 to seize ancient works from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest museum in the country, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Six of those have come this year, encompassing more than 30 antiquities from Greece, India, Egypt and Libya, among other nations.

In December, one of New York’s most prolific collectors, the billionaire Michael Steinhardt, surrendered 180 stolen objects worth $70 million after authorities determined the works to have been looted and smuggled from nearly a dozen countries. Steinhardt also agreed to a rare lifetime ban from owning antiquities.

The Denver Art Museum in July gave up 22 looted pieces from India connected to a former New York City gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor, who recently was sentenced to 10 years in prison by an Indian court for running a decades-long illicit antiquities smuggling operation. He’s expected to be extradited at some point to the U.S., where he faces similar charges.

“The pace is picking up,” Bogdanos told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in August regarding his office’s art seizures. “Expect it to pick up more.”

As a result, collectors and dealers are now thinking twice about making purchases that once might have been easy decisions 10 or 15 years ago, industry watchers say.

“Recent actions by the government have decimated the industry,” said Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor who now consults with antiquity dealers and gallery owners. “As a dealer of antiquities now, if you don’t have iron-clad provenance, you have to really be careful your piece is not going to get seized by the government.”

One effective tactic that prosecutors have used is threatening dealers and collectors, Levin said, forcing them to give up the item in question or risk being charged with a crime.

“I don’t think criminal prosecution should be used as a threat to get a piece returned,” he said. “Often it’s too heavy-handed.”

Bogdanos, in another interview last year, said people who deal in antiquities “are capable of the same base criminality as common hoodlums in the streets of lower Manhattan. For me, honestly, they’re just the same.”

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