Recently, someone suggested we look into the ties between Douglas Latchford and the Berlin Asian Art Museum, where he is said to have enjoyed a “special arrangement” for several years.
As you’ll recall, Latchford is the Bangkok-based British collector who was the source of the looted 10th Century Khmer statues now held by Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon museum. The Sotheby’s statue is the subject of a federal seizure lawsuit brought by the U.S. government on behalf of Cambodia, which claims the statue was illegally removed from the country in the 1970s. The government alleges that Latchford, identified in court records as “the Collector,” knew the statue had been looted from Koh Ker and conspired with Spink and Son auction house to fraudulently obtain export licenses for the statue in 1975. Latchford has denied the allegations.
We’ve previously tracked Khmer art tied to Latchford to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Norton Simon Museum and the Denver Art Museum, where his partner Emmy Bunker is a research consultant. In March, a federal judge in New York found sufficient evidence for the US government to proceed with its forfeiture case against the Sotheby’s statue.
Latchford’s ties to the Berlin museum have not previously been reported, and the museum initially declined to answer questions about the loans. Only when we inquired about a specific piece — a statue of Ganesh from Koh Ker — did the museum provide a partial response. “The Museum of Indian Art (today part of the Asian Art Museum) in Berlin borrowed four objects from Mr. Latchford for certain projects between 2000 and 2006,” said spokeswoman Birgit Jöbstl. “It has not purchased any objects from Mr. Latchford. The loans were taken for curatorial reasons, to complete the narrative of the museum.”
One of those four objects was the sandstone Ganesh from Koh Ker.
UPDATE 5/16: The Berlin Museum has yet to respond to our request of April 8 for information about the other three objects loaned by Latchford. German TV producer Wolfgang Luck has had…ehem…better luck. Here is the response he received from the museum almost immediately (translated from German):
Two objects (a pre-Khmer Buddha, No. 259 in the catalog „Magische Götterwelten (Magic Worlds of Gods) and a female Khmer-figurine, No. 260 in the catalog „Magische Götterwelten”) had been lent on occasion of the museum’s opening in the year 2000. The objects were important pieces of the museum’s permanent exhibition. The contract on the lending of the objects expired in December 2004. The Buddha was given back. As a “replacement” Mr. Latchford lent the above mentioned Ganesha-figurine to the museum. The contract on the lending of the female Khmer-figurine was prolonged until the end of 2005, thereafter it was given back as well. The fourth object, a Vishnu, arrived at the museum at the beginning of 2006 and was on display there until its return to Mr. Latchford in February 2007.”
Museum spokeswoman Birgit Jöbstl took issue with our characterization of the loans as evidence of a special relationship, telling Luck, “Within the described contracts on lending there were no extraordinary agreements.” However, she goes on to acknowledge the museum did not follow its own due diligence standards when accepting the statues, which have no documented ownership history:
With regard to the examination of the objects’ provenance we must unfortunately assume that no other documents were obtained from Mr. Latchford than his personal confirmation and the information published in Bunker/Latchford: Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art (2004). According to the UNESCO Convention of 1970 the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation does not acquire objects, the lawful provenance or importation of which is doubtful. For several years now the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has been maintaining this attitude also towards items of loan. Unfortunately this standard was not yet maintained with the above mentioned objects lent to the museum by Mr. Latchford.
We also note that the authors of the above-cited publication, “Magische Götterwelten,” were several Berlin Museum officials, including Marianne Yaldiz. Look for Wolfgang Luck’s 1 hour documentary on the case sometime next year on the German-French station ARTE.
Now, back to the Koh Ker Ganesh…
The statue representing the elephantine Hindu deity, worshiped even today as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings, arrived at the Berlin museum in December 2004 and was given prominent display at the museum’s entrance. It was described as being on loan from “an American private collection,” but in fact it had come from Latchford. Soon after it arrived, the piece was published in the museum’s journal Indo-Asiatische Zeitschrift
GIAK. Its only previous publication had been in Latchford and Bunker’s 2004 catalog “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art” (pp. 168-70.)
GIAK Indo-Asiatische Zeitschrift article pointed to the striking similarities between the statue and a Ganesh photographed during the 1939 Parmentier expedition to Koh Ker. It had since disappeared, presumably looted. ”This work represents an exact counterpart of the present image both in terms of shape and size,” the article noted. ”Even in minute details, both figures seem to be quite similar. However, they wear different types of necklaces, and carved nipples are absent on the Berlin Ganesha…Both the figures are probably products of the same workshop, and both of them may have served as cult images.”
Some scholars had already pointed out the similarities with some suspicion. Betrand Porte suggested in an article in Arts Asiatiques (59, 2004) that the Berlin Ganesh may be the same one shown in the Parmentier photos, with a few details carefully altered to disguise its looted origins. Jean Baptiste and Thierry Zéphir suggested in the same publication that the question could be cleared up with a close scientific analysis. But when a museum consultant suggested testing the statue, the museum’s director Marianne Yaldiz reportedly grew upset. Latchford and Bunker provided a report of a visual examination conducted by Pieter Meyers — the same Los Angeles expert used when doubts arose in Sotheby’s investigation — that concluded the Berlin statue had not been altered. Soon after, the consultant left the museum.
The consultant would not comment and Yaldiz, who retired in 2006, could not be reached. The scientific analysis was never conducted. The Ganesh was removed from display in December 2006, and its whereabouts are currently not known.
In a statement, the museum spokeswoman said, “For all loans, the museum observed due diligence according to the Berlin museums’ general practice, and there was at that time no reason to question the integrity of the lender…The Asian Art Museum, like all other collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, observes due diligence before borrowing or buying objects. It thereby works according to the standards set by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.”
Given that commitment to UNESCO principals, we have asked the Berlin museum to provide details about its due diligence for the Latchford loans. What documented ownership history was provided with the loans? What assured the museum that the objects were not the product of modern looting? Where are they today? Why was the Ganesh described as coming from an American collection, when it fact it came from Latchford? And what purpose did the “special arrangement” with Latchford serve, aside from boosting the value of the objects for later sale?
The museum has so far declined to answer those questions. We’ll post a response when we receive it.