Tag Archives: Kimbell Art Museum

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.

Latchford’s Footprints: Suspect Khmer Art at the Kimbell and the Met

We’re continuing to trace suspect Cambodian antiquities linked to Douglas Latchford, the man at the center of the on-going federal looting probe that we’ve detailed in previous posts here. Last week we wrote about suspect Khmer antiquities at the Denver Art Museum. Here are our latest finds:

The Kimbell Art Museum

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In 1988, the Kimbell Art Museum purchased an important 7th century Khmer sculpture from Latchford.

At the time of purchase, the statue had no documented ownership history. The only record the Kimbell obtained about its origins was a signed guarantee from Latchford claiming the statue had been in his possession in Thailand since 1968 and had legally been shipped to the UK in 1987, a museum spokeswoman said.

Latchford has made similar claims about contested Khmer statues at Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon Museum that are now the focus on a federal lawsuit. Federal investigators have alleged in court filings that Latchford purchased those statues after they were looted in the early 1970s and smuggled to Thailand, a claim Latchford denies. (See our previous coverage of the case here.)

The statue represents Harihara, a Hindu deity that combined the destructive force of Shiva and the creative power of Vishnu. The statue’s style suggests the piece came from the pre-Angkor ruins of Prasat Andet, in central Cambodia. The Kimbell has no evidence of legal export from Cambodian, a museum spokeswoman confirmed.

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)Acquiring an object based exclusively on a dealer’s warranty — rather than an actual documented ownership history that proves it was not looted — was a common tactic in the 1980s, particularly for pieces that were likely looted. As we described in Chasing Aphrodite, the J. Paul Getty Museum passed a new acquisition policy for antiquities in 1987 that called for a dealer warranty in place of an inquiry into an object’s origins. The practice allowed the Getty to continue acquiring objects it knew or suspected had been looted – including an $18 million statue of Aphrodite – while providing a modicum of legal and public relations cover if the statue were later questioned. But the policy failed: The Getty returned the Aphrodite to Italy in 2010 after our investigation in the LA Times made clear the dealer warranty was a thin cover for the truth — the statue had been looted from an archaeological site in central Sicily.

Kimbell1The Kimbell believes the Harihara is the only object in its collection with ties to Latchford, but can’t be certain, a museum spokeswoman said. It is not the only suspect piece of ancient art to surface at the museum. In February, we wrote about the Kimbell’s 5th century BC Greek cup by the Douris painter. After we noted the cup’s ownership history had been traced to Elie Borowski, a dealer who has been linked to the illicit trade in Classical antiquities, the Kimbell announced it would publish the cup on a registry of objects maintained by the Association of Art Museum Directors. The cup was never listed in the registry — likely because it was acquired prior to 2008, when the directors group began requiring suspect antiquities to be posted. (This leaves the question: where should suspect antiquities acquired before 2008 be posted publicly to encourage further provenance research? Museums should be publishing the complete known provenance of all their antiquities, but don’t. We’ve proposed our own answer.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

met.hariharaWhile researching the Kimbell’s Harihara, we noticed that The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a similar Harihara, also linked to Prasat Andet, in 1977. We’ve asked the Met for the provenance of the statue, as none is listed on their website.

The Met also has several pieces from Latchford. The New York Times has previously noted that Cambodia will ask the museum to return its two prominently displayed Standing Attendants, which also came through Latchford from Koh Ker. As Paul Barford has noted, the knees of those statues bear clear signs of having been hacked from a base by looters. (The Met’s high resolution photos and zoom tool are quite useful here.) Screen Shot 2012-12-23 at 10.50.29 PM

David Gill has also noted that the statues came to the museum in fragments from different sources acquired over several years and were reassembled at the Met. Martin Lerner, the Met’s former Asian Art curator, noted the happy coincidence in the catalog: “It is particularly gratifying that the monumental bodies join up with heads already in the collection.” This appears similar to a pattern we’ve seen in objects passed through smuggling networks that dealt in Classical antiquities, the so-called “fragments game” identified by Italian investigators and noted by Gill here.

Gill has also helpfully identified several other Latchford donations at the Met:

1983_551_232391-1A 10th century Khmer Head of Buddha acquired in 1983 as a gift from Latchford. (1983.551)

A 12th century Bodhisattva from Nepal acquired in 1989 as a gift from Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford.  (1989.237.1)

A bronze 9th century Bodhisattva Maitreya from Thailand acquired in 1989 as a gift from Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford. (1989.237.2)

A 2nd century Ghandaran plaque from Pakistan acquired as  gift of Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford in 1989. (1989.237.3)

DT5214The gifts suggest several things: Latchford was a generous donor to the Met over several years, and dealt not just in Khmer art but also material from South Asia. It would be worth perusing the Met’s 1994 catalog of Asian Art for other examples of material from South East Asia. For example, given the history of looting at Koh Ker, we were interested in how this gilt bronze statue of a king from Kor Ker (left) ended up in the collection Walter Annenberg before being acquired by the Met in 1988.

We’ll continue looking for Latchford objects in other museums. If you’ve got any tips, drop us at line at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

Kimbell Art Museum Responds To Questions About Ancient Cup Acquired Under Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts

The Kimbell Art Museum has decided to list one of its prized possessions — a Greek cup acquired in 2000 under then-director Timothy Potts — on a public registry of ancient art with unclear origins.

The move comes after Jason raised questions about the cup while reporting an article for Saturday’s LA Times on Potts’ role in the controversies involving American museums and the looted antiquities trade discussed in Chasing Aphrodite. This week Potts was named as the next director of the Getty Museum.

The cup in question is from the 5th century BC and was masterfully painted by the Greek artist known as the Douris Painter. The Kimbell describes it as “one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period.” The scene on the cup depicts the death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes, being torn limb from limb by a group of drunken followers of Dionysus.

The museum lists the cup’s ownership history as follows: (Elie Borowski [1913-2003]) by 1977; sold to a Japanese oil company, probably late 1980s; (sale, Christie’s, New York, June 12, 2000, no. 81); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2000.

As David Gill noted in his review of James Cuno’s book Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, the vase was published by Robert Guy in “Glimpses of Excellence: A Selection of Greek Vases and Bronzes from the Elie Borowski Collection” (Toronto Royal Ontario Museum) and highlighted in an interview with Potts for Apollo Magazine (vol. 166,October 1,2007).

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The earliest documented owner of the cup, Elie Borowski, has been linked to the illicit trade by Italian and Greek investigators. His name appears  in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici and on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001 (on right). Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the chart) who is now on trial in Italy.

In correspondence with Potts and the Kimbell, we asked why they were confident the cup was not the product of an illicit excavation after 1970.

Kimbell spokeswoman Jessica Brandrup initially said: “The Museum has not been contacted by the Italian or the Greek government in regards to works in the Museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of the Greek vase was legitimate and remains a highlight in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.”

Potts said via email, “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.” (Worth noting: Four years after the acquisition of the cup, Potts played a central and somewhat controversial role in re-writing those AAMD guidelines, as we note in Saturday’s LA Times story.)

When we pushed the Kimbell for additional information about the cup, we received this statement:

“When the Douris cup was purchased at auction in 2000, the Kimbell Art Museum, like most US museums, held antiquities to the standard of the US 1983 ratification of the 1970 UNESCO treaty.

We believe that the piece can be documented as being outside its country of finding before 1983. Subsequent to its purchase, the AAMD recommended in 2008 that museums apply the 1970 standard instead.

We don’t have information on the cup’s whereabouts between 1970 and 1977, as is evident in the provenance described on our website. To further comply with the AAMD recommendations, we will post it on the AAMD Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.

Thank you for calling this discrepancy to our attention.”

The AAMD object registry was created in 2008, when American museum directors decided the 2004 policy championed by Potts and others was not adequate. As described on AAMD’s website, the 2008 changes sought “to affirm more clearly and tangibly its members’ commitment to helping protect and preserve archaeological resources worldwide, and to strengthen the principles and standards used in making decisions regarding the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art.”

The AAMD’s object registry lists recent acquisitions of ancient art whose ownership histories cannot be traced back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO anti-looting treaty. The goal is “to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries, officials, as well as possible claimants.”

The registry also contains 10 objects acquired by the Chicago Institute of Art, many of then under director James Cuno, who is now Getty Trust CEO.

Dallas Morning News: “A Page-Turner”

In a review published on Sunday, the Dallas Morning News calls Chasing Aphrodite “a fascinating look at the long-standing ‘institutional hypocrisy’ of the acquisition policy of major American Museums.”

“Felch and Frammolino were relentless in their uncovering of the Getty’s various other lapses:  they peer into the infighting and ‘sexually charged Getty culture,’ ferreting out details in the museum’s governance, as well as the extravagant personal use of the Getty’s funds by its most flamboyant director, Barry Munitz, a former chancellor of the California State University system. All of which makes for a page-turner.”

Interesting side-note: the reviewer Kathryn Lang was a docent at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, which has an impressive collection of ancient art. Lang does not mention the fact, but several suspect dealers in the book helped the Kimbell form its collection. Among the ancient objects at the museum are a Greek vase purchased from Robin Symes (the dealer who sold the Getty its looted statue of Aphrodite) and several objects from Elie Borowski, whose name appears prominently in a chart of the illicit antiquities trade seized by Italian police. (See Chasing Aphrodite, p. 151)