Tag Archives: Denver Art Museum

UPDATED > Rebuilding Koh Ker: A 3D Reconstruction Restores Context to a Looted Khmer Temple

UPDATE 5/6/14: The Norton Simon Museum and Christie’s auction house have agreed to return two additional sculptures looted from the Praset Chen temple at Koh Ker, Cambodia, the New York Times reports. The Norton Simon’s Bhima has been on display since the 1970s. Christies sold a looted sculpture of Pandava twice, most recently in 2009, and bought the sculpture back from the anonymous buyer when information emerged about its looted origins. They are the fourth and fifth objects from the looted temple to be returned. Two additional sculptures from the site remain on display at the Denver Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.  

Cambodia is quietly negotiating the return of several important 10th century sculptures that were looted from the temple complex of Koh Ker in the 1970s.

Bhima at Norton SimonOfficials from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena recently traveled to Phnom Penh to discuss the fate of its looted Bhima (right). “We have met and had constructive conversations that are continuing,” said Luis Li, an attorney for the museum. Several other museums are also in talks with Cambodia about objects in their collections.

Koh Ker was the source of several iconic Khmer sculptures that were looted in the 1970s and sold to prominent museums and collectors. We’ve previously written about ties between the looters and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The most famous of these stolen masterpieces is the Bhima’s companion, Duryodhana, which Sotheby’s attempted to auction in March 2012 on behalf of a Belgian collector. After a lengthy legal fight, Sotheby’s agreed to return the sculpture to Cambodia last December. Months earlier, the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return two Kneeling Attendants looted from the same site. Additional sculptures from the site have been identified at The Cleveland Museum and the Denver Museum of Art. [Complete coverage here.]

This New York Times graphic shows their original locations in the ruined temple of Prasat Chen:

NYT graphic of Koh KerWhile the returns are being negotiated by Cambodian authorities, archaeologists with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) have been busy reconstructing the Koh Ker temples with the tools of virtual reality. By sewing together thousands of digital pictures of the sculptures into 3D images, they’ve re-created their original context in the now ruined temples. At EFEO’s website you can watch a remarkable video showing what the site might have looked like soon after its construction by Jayavarman IV.

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One of those behind this work – and some of the original detective work that linked them to the temple – is French archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau. He graduated from the Sorbonne with degrees in Archaeology and Oriental Studies. His 2005 Phd was entitled “Indianization and Formation of the State in South-East Asia: A reappraisal of the Historiography of the last Thirty Years.” He has been a lecturer at the EFEO since 2007.

Here’s my Q and A with Bourdonneau.

Q: How did you become involved in the case involving the Duryodhana at Sotheby’s?

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Let’s talk first about the Bhima statue at the Norton Simon Foundation.* As far as I know, the connection between the Prasat Chen and this statue (published in Bunker and Latchford 2004) seems to have been made for the first time by a member of the GACP team (a stone conservation German project) who sent a short letter to Unesco in 2007 (I was informed about this letter quite late in 2011). Personally, I saw the pedestal of the statue during the first archaeological campaign I made in Koh Ker in 2009. I made also the connection with the Norton Simon statue that I identified then as a statue of a fighting Bhima … and so concluded that the other pedestal close at hand was for a Duryodhana. But, at that time, I didn’t know of any image of this Duryodhana.

The feet of the disputed statue were left behind when it was taken from the ruins of the Prasat Chen Temple, 80 miles east of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The other feet belong to a statue now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, experts say.

The feet of the Duryodhana and the Norton Simon’s Bhima in situ in Koh Ker.

I saw it for the first time at the end of 2010 when I presented my work to my colleagues of Guimet Museum, Pierre Baptiste and Thierry Zéphir. They showed me a photo of this statue, a photo that was in the Museum Archives but with no information about its origin, its identification or its localization. The next step was just one week before the sale in New York (March 2011). I was informed almost by accident (I was probably the last one to be informed among those concerned by the sale…). Ironically it was a collector that told me that a statue of “Koh Ker style” would be on sale. I prepared straight after a report (with photos, dimensions and iconographical “demonstration”) and sent it to Unesco office in Phnom Penh (where people were wondering about the authenticity and the provenance of this statue) and this report, I was told, was immediately transmitted to Cambodian Ministry of Culture.

I also made several presentations since 2009 and published a quite long article in 2011 where I explained why these statues should be identified with the two images of Bhima and Duryodhana at Prasat Chen and why there was little doubt that the two “Met pieces” (the Pandava brothers), among others, came from the same building.gopura_II

Q: How did you ultimately make the match between the sculpture and its feet?

The abandoned feet at Koh Ker superimposed on the Temple Warrior at the Norton Simon, from a report to UNESCO by researcher Simon Warrack.

The abandoned feet at Koh Ker superimposed on the Temple Warrior at the Norton Simon, from a report to UNESCO by researcher Simon Warrack.

It is not so difficult. The position, the style, the dimensions (e.g. dimensions of the breaks at the ankles, taken in situ) left not much doubt. It is a little more difficult to show that such a statue could come only from Prasat Chen and not from another temple. The iconographic analysis is essential for that.

Q: Have you found any other matches to objects missing from Koh Ker or other Cambodian sites? Where are these objects today? 

1970_17There are indeed a quite significant number of similar cases. The most obvious are those for which where we have photos in the archives: for example, the Ganesha from Prasat Bak or the lion (right) from the Shiva pedestal in Prasat Thom (and today in Dallas Museum). Many of them are now in private collections so it is not easy to know their current location. At least it is possible to know when and where they were sold thanks to sale catalogues published by auction houses.

Q: The Duryodhana and the Met’s Kneeling Attendants have been returned. Others may soon follow. Where will these objects be displayed in Cambodia? What significance does this have for the local people? 

I have no precise information about this. But, of course, they will be exhibited. You better have to ask to Cambodians themselves. Obviously they have many reasons to be proud of their heritage and to celebrate the return of these remarkable pieces. It is important to remind what we are talking about: a deliberate destruction that did not care about the integrity of the artworks, provided that there were people ready to purchase them.

The state of conservation of these artworks in stone was remarkably good as they were still buried when looted. It is maybe not useless to say again, as Elizabeth Becker rightly wrote in NY Times, that the fury of the Khmer Rouge was, sadly, directed much more against people than stones: in Koh Ker, the only traces of vandalism, of which there are many, ­are those left by the modern looters whose spoils fed the art market (some of them can be seen on the knees of the two “MET statues”, cut hastily and coarsely from their pedestals with dozens of blows of a chisel).

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It is hardly understandable how the purchasers of the objects could be “rescuers” working for the protection of heritage, as it has been said. As you know, they actually were those to whom the damaged statues were destined and the unique raison d’être of this vandalism. For this same reason, they are certainly not working for a better “understanding of Khmer culture.”

The so-called Sotheby’s or MET statues, like many of their kind extracted from their original surroundings, have remained impossible to understand as long as we have not been able to replace them in the temples where they were erected, that is, as long as we have not restored what was destroyed forty or thirty years ago by the looters.

What is at stake here is not only “heritage” but history.

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*We’ve edited Eric’s response to make clear he was referring here to the Bhima, not the Duryodhana.

Blood Antiquities: After Lengthy Fight, Sotheby’s Agrees to Return Looted Khmer Statue

Sotheby’s and a private collector agreed on Thursday to forfeit a 10th century statue of a warrior to Cambodia, ending a lengthy legal fight that exposed the trafficking of looted Khmer antiquities to museums and collectors around the world.

The agreement states that Sotheby’s will transfer the statue of Duryodhana to Cambodia within 90 days in exchange for the U.S. government dropping a lawsuit brought on behalf of the Cambodian government. The suit claimed the auction house and Belgian collector Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa had attempted to sell the statue in 2011 despite their knowledge that it had been looted from a Cambodian temple. 

There was never any doubt about whether the statue had been looted, or where it had been found. As we wrote in April 2012, internal emails cited in the case revealed that Sotheby’s officials were warned by an expert that the statue had been stolen from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen, in Koh Ker, and that its public sale might lead to a legal claim.

“The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from,” wrote Emma Bunker, a leading expert on Khmer art and close associate of Douglas Latchford, the Bangkok dealer who allegedly bought it from looters and exported it from Thailand. “It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back,” she added. “I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.”

Sotheby’s officials decided that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,’” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk,” internal emails showed.

Thursday’s agreement to forfeit the statue shows that calculation was decidedly wrong. Sotheby’s could have returned the statue to the collector and let her decide its fate, as auction houses have often done when claims arise. It also could have accepted a $1 million offer from a private collector who sought to buy the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Instead Sotheby’s opted to fight it out in court – at considerable cost to both its bank account and its reputation.

One of the lingering questions from the case is, why? Some have pointed to the personalities involved in the case, which pit the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York against Jane Levine, one of the former stars of its cultural property crimes unit who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. In a series of bare-knuckled filings, the government accused Levin of providing “false and misleading information to the Government.” Levin pushed back, accusing investigators of misleading the auction house about having probable cause for the statue’s seizure.

Another theory, floated this weekend at a UN-sponsored conference in Courmayeur by a prominent retired art crimes investigator, is that Sotheby’s may have taken on partial ownership of the statue. Why else would it spend what were likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending someone else’s problematic statue?

Regardless of the motive, the outcome of the case has cast a spotlight on a major trafficking network of looted Khmer antiquities. At the Courmayeur conference, researchers Tess Davis and Simon MacKenzie reported on their field work this summer mapping that very trafficking network, which was responsible for plunder of 10th and 11th century Khmer temples across northern Cambodia. Among the preliminary findings of the research was that Ta Mok, the senior Khmer Rouge leader known as The Butcher and Brother Number 5, may well have played a personal role in the removal of ancient statues from Koh Ker. This lends support to the notion that looted Khmer objects at museums around the world should be considered “blood antiquities.”

Attention now shifts to other Khmer statues likely acquired through the same smuggling network. Over the past year we and others have traced objects from Koh Ker and other sites that passed through the hands of Douglas Latchford before ending up in museums across the United States and Europe. The case for the return of those objects has now grown much stronger.

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In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return its two Khmer Kneeling Attendants, which it acquired from Latchford and other donors. The decision was reached after museum officials traveled to Cambodia and were presented with “dispositive” evidence of the statues’ illicit origins. The Met continues to possess several other objects tied to Latchford that have not been returned.

Officials from the Norton Simon will soon travel to Cambodia to discuss the museum’s statue of Bima, whose feet remain in the Koh Ker temple next to those of its companion, the Durydhana that Sotheby’s has just agreed to return. The Bima was purchased in 1976 from New York dealer William H. Wolff. The museum may well consider the words of its founder. When asked about repatriation of looted antiquities, Norton Simon once told the New York Times: “If it did some good, I would return it. If there were reason and probability that smuggling could be stopped, I would do it. It would do a lot to establish a constructive relationship between nations….Looting is a terribly destructive process. In cutting works out of temples, thieves mutilate them.”

Cambodia has indicated it is preparing to makes similar claims against Khmer statues tied to Latchford at the Kimbell Museum, the Cleveland Museum and the Denver Art Museum. Many more exist in private collections.

The owners of these blood antiquities would be wise to learn from Sotheby’s experience and not wait for a demand from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Here’s the stipulation Sotheby’s signed on December 12th agreeing to the statue’s return.

UPDATED: The Met Returns Two Khmer Statues to Cambodia, Citing Clear Evidence Of Looting

DP212330-1UPDATE: The New York Times reported May 15 that Cambodia is also planning to ask for the return of a statue of Hanuman at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This is in addition to the Norton Simon Bhima and the Denver Rama we’ve written about previously, which Cambodian officials also want returned. All are said to have been taken from the same temple complex at Koh Ker. Neither Cleveland nor Denver would disclose the origins or collecting histories of the contested statues.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two ancient Khmer statues to Cambodia after reviewing clear evidence that they were looted. Here’s Jason’s story in Friday’s LA Times:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two ancient statues to Cambodia after receiving convincing evidence they had been looted and smuggled out of the country illegally.

The 10th century Khmer statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, have flanked the entrance to the Met’s South East Asian galleries for years and are among the museum’s most prized objects from the region.

They were acquired in fragments between 1987 and 1992 as donations primarily from Douglas Latchford, a British collector based in Bangkok who is at the center of a federal investigation of antiquities looted from the ancient temple complex of Koh Ker.

Cambodian officials announced last June that they would seek the return of the statues. At the time, Met officials said they had no information to indicate the statues were stolen.

On Friday, the Met would not release details on what information led it to decide to return the statues, but noted recent press reports and information provided by UNESCO officials, who have been investigating looting in Cambodia.

“All I can say is that sufficient evidence came to light,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer. “It was dispositive and more than satisfied the director.”

The returns suggest Cambodia has found substantial evidence to support its claim that several American museums possess looted antiquities that were illegally exported by Bangkok-based dealer Douglas Latchford. Latchford has denied the claim.

We’ve previously identified several other museums that acquired Khmer antiquities from Latchford: The Norton Simon Museum, the Kimbell Museum, the Denver Art Museum and the Berlin Museums. The Met continues to possess several other antiquities tied to Latchford that will not be returned in the deal announced Friday.

The Met’s returns will also have an impact on the on-going lawsuit in which the US government is seeking the return of a Khmer warrior statue at Sotheby’s. See here for our complete coverage of the case , including court documents that detail the government’s evidence.

Douglas Latchford’s Footprints: Suspect Khmer Antiquities At the Denver Art Museum

13COLLECTOR-popupWho is Douglas A. J. Latchford?

That is the question many are asking since the Bangkok-based British collector who describes himself as an “adventurer-scholar” emerged at the center of the legal fight over an allegedly looted 10th Century Khmer warrior now at Sotheby’s.

Federal prosecutors have said in recent court filings that Latchford knowingly purchased the Sotheby’s statue and its companion at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena from “an organized looting network” that stole the objects from the ruins of the Koh Ker temple complex deep in Cambodia’s northern jungles. Latchford allegedly conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for the statues, which were transported it to London in the early 1970s, the filings claim.

[Our previous coverage of the Sotheby’s case can be found here.]

DP212330-1As the New York Times reported in June, Latchford is also listed as the donor of record for two prominent Khmer pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Cambodia wants back. All four of the statues are believed to have been looted from the ancient temple complex of Prasat Chen and smuggled out of Cambodia sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Latchford denies the allegations. In an interview this month, he told the New York Times that prosecutors were “weaving together suppositions.” “This is somebody’s imagination working overtime,” he said in an interview at his Bangkok home with reporter Tom Mashberg. He claims that the London auction house Spink at times used his name for purchases of objects he never owned. Spink claims it has no longer has records from those years.

At the same time, Latchford suggested he had a transcendental claim to Khmer art: Buddhist priests once told him he was Khmer in a previous life, “and that what I collect had once belonged to me,” he told the Times. Asked about his early collecting,

Mr. Latchford spins tales of bumping his Jeep along makeshift roads in the jungles of Thailand and Cambodia, exploring vine-entangled temples and the shattered outposts from a 1,000-year-old fallen empire.

He and other well-known collectors, he said, would buy and trade what became available without fretting over the provenance details that govern modern antiquities transactions. They were rescuers, not plunderers, he said, pointing out that he and others have restored, protected, cataloged and donated artifacts that might have been broken into pieces or lost or neglected.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby's, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby’s, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

The final statement is ironic, as federal prosecutors suggest the statue at Sotheby’s was purposefully broken by looters to make it easier to smuggle, a claim supported by Sotheby’s own analysis of the statue’s surface. Indeed, both statues’ feet remain in place at Koh Ker.

Latchford gave another revealing answer in a 2010 interview with the Bangkok Post when asked where a piece in his considerable private collection had come from:

“The ground,” he answered. “Most of the pieces I have come across in the past years have been excavated, or dug up. You know, there is a farmer in the field who digs something up, and he probably thinks if I take it to Bangkok or Singapore or a middle man I can get $100 instead of getting $10.”

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Latchford has close ties to Emma Bunker, the Khmer art expert hired by Sotheby’s to help with the sale of the contested Khmer statue. In emails to Sotheby’s, Bunker stated that the statue was “definitely stolen,” and said her “culture spies” could help Sotheby’s navigate Cambodia’s cultural heritage bureaucracy. Latchford and Bunker have co-authored several books on Khmer art, including Adoration and Glory, which boasts that “the authors were able to gain access to private as well as public collections worldwide to give unparalleled access to more than 150 objects,” many of which are published there for the first time.

bookComplicating matters, Latchford, now 81, has become a prominent donor to Cambodian museums of both antiquities and money. Emails from the Sotheby’s case make clear his generosity has earned him close ties to cultural officials in the Cambodian government, including to Hab Touch, who is today pressing Cambodia’s repatriation claims but in the past has praised Latchford’s scholarship.

Given this history, we’ve started to scratch around to see where else objects tied to Latchford have ended up. Here’s the first of those reports.

DENVER ART MUSEUM

The Denver Museum has six objects in its permanent collection acquired from Latchford, four of them acquired as gifts. Here are details provided by the museum:

1. Painted Vessel from Thailand, 400-200 BCE. Earthenware and paint
Gift of Douglas A.J. Latchford. Accession #2000.67 No additional provenance available.

2. Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom, Prajnaparamita Cambodia, Angkor period, late 1100s–early 1200s sandstone, 59 inches (130 cm) high. Purchased from Latchford “in honor of Emma C. Bunker.” Accession #2000.198

DAM_Website_2000.198

The museum’s website suggests the piece could be from the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom: “The gentle smile and lowered eyes are features associated with sculptures from the Bayon temple built by Jayavarman VII, the last great ruler of the Angkor royal line.”

The museum said the piece was originally purchased by “Ian Donaldson” in Vietnam around 1964-66; then shipped from Thailand to the UK on February 12, 1994 and imported from the UK on March 10, 1994. It is worth noting that Adoration and Glory contains a very similar statue listed as being in a private collection.

surya3. Sun God (Surya) from Cambodia or Vietnam. 600’s to 700’s, Pre-Angkor period, sandstone. Purchased from Latchford in 2004. Accession #2004.371. Published in “Adoration and Glory.” No other provenance information was provided.

4.  Sleep of Vishnu and the Birth of Brahma, Cambodia, 700’s, Pre-Angkor period. Sandstone. Gift of Douglas A. J. Latchford. Accession #2005.104. The piece was published in “Adoration and Glory” and listed as being held in an “American Collection” on page 84. No other provenance information was provided.

5. Bronze Bell, Cambodia, 1st Century BCE, Iron Age. Gift of Douglas A.J. Latchford. Accession #2005.105. No provenance or publication history provided.

6. Wood Cabinet with Chinese Motifs, 1700’s Thailand. Gift of Douglas A. J. Latchford & Emma C. Bunker. Accession #2006.81. No provenance or publication history provided.

rama_1986_44Among the museum’s Khmer objects not included in the list are other objects from Koh Ker, such as this statue of Rama, whose ownership history is not listed.

In short, in recent years the Denver Art Museum has acquired several Cambodian antiquities with little or no documented ownership history — much less evidence of legal exportation — from a man now at the center of a federal looting probe. For several of those objects, the only documented history was a book written by Latchford himself. The museum’s position is further complicated by the fact that Emma Bunker is listed as research consultant for the museum, suggesting a possible conflict of interest. All of these are serious red flags.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the museum said, “The Denver Art Museum curatorial team conducts provenance research on an ongoing basis and posts results online as they become available both on the museum’s website and on the AAMD object registry. The Museum adheres to AAMD guidelines for the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art set forth in 2008. In coming into full compliance with AAMD guidelines for antiquities and archeological material, the Denver Art Museum now requires all available provenance information to be provided for new acquisitions.”

The statement suggests a deep misunderstanding of modern acquisition ethics. The moral obligation on museums to obtain clear provenance — concrete evidence that an antiquity had not been recently looted — did not begin in 2008, after the wave of museum scandals we wrote about in Chasing Aphrodite, but in 1970 with the passage of the UNESCO convention. Further, the museum’s postings on the AAMD Object Registry suggest that South East Asian antiquities are not the only problematic collecting area for the Denver museum: it has acquired nine pre-Colombian objects since 2008 that do not have provenance pre-dating 1970.

We’ll follow-up on these matters with Denver, which has still not provided a list of Latchford objects that were lent to the museum.

Meanwhile, if you know of other Latchford material in public or private collections, drop us a line confidentially at chasingaphrodite@gmail.com