Tag Archives: Emma C. Bunker

Gloves Come Off: Amid Accusations of Deceit, Sotheby’s Lawsuit Reveals How U.S. Built Its Case

Duryodhanna

Last week the tables were turned on the U.S. government as documents filed in court by Sotheby’s revealed the private deliberations of American investigators, whose zeal for the return of an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer statue often appears to exceed that of Cambodian officials.

In December, we wrote that filings in the court battle between the U.S. government and Sotheby’s over the statue had revealed the inner workings of the top international auction house. Last November we described how the case had revealed the underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade.

Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn. The exhibits, obtained through discovery in late August and attached to a Sept. 9th Sotheby’s motion for judgment, provide a rare window into the investigation of a major international cultural property case whose outcome will likely hold sway for years. The emails detail how Interpol officials worked close with Brent Easter, an investigator of cultural property crimes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to build a legal rationale for the statue’s seizure on behalf of Cambodia. The process eventually involved officials at the U.S. Department of State, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government. At one point, Easter asked Cambodian officials to stop negotiating with Sotheby’s for the statue’s voluntary return so that the U.S. government could purse its legal case against the auction house.

Read the correspondence:

Sotheby’s cites the records in asking the judge for a ruling on the case without the need for further discovery. The auction house says Easter claimed to have probable cause for seizure of the statue when in fact he was still scrambling to cobble together a legal theory to support Cambodia’s claim. The auction house also cites an expert on French law in arguing that the government’s legal theory — which relies in part on colonial-era decrees for Cambodia’s ownership claim — is bogus.

Read Sotheby’s motion:

The government rebuts Sotheby’s motion in a Sept. 11th letter to the judge, arguing, among other things, that “Sotheby’s provided false and misleading information to the Government.” To support its claim, the government cites a March 22, 2011 email between ICE’s Easter and Jane Levine, a former assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York specialized in cultural property crimes who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. Easter asked Levine whether Sotheby’s had “solid provenance information” for the statue. Levine said they did, noting Sotheby’s had “identified two individuals who presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s.”

SothebyRather than take Levine at her word, Easter pursued the original documentation for the statue, which had been passed from the London auction house Spink and Sons to Christies. Remarkably, the Spink records indicate the statue was stolen from the Cambodian temple of Prasat Chen in 1972, according to the government letter. This is the first hint of documentary evidence to support the government’s claim of the statue’s theft. What else might be contained in the archives of Spink, which was dealer Douglas Latchford‘s  primary pass through for allegedly looted Khmer antiquities? Could this archive also be the source of the “dispositive evidence” of looting cited by the Met in its recent return of two looted Khmer attendants to Cambodia?

Read the government’s letter:

As it turns out, the two individuals Levine cited were Latchford, who the government alleges “conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen,” and his colleague Emma Bunker, who later told Sotheby’s the statue was “definitely stolen.” Not exactly disinterested parties, and the government accuses Levine of deception: “The information provided by Levine was simply false.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct 14th. 

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UPDATED: Latchford’s Footprints in Berlin: A Khmer Ganesh and other loans to the Asian Art Museum

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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.

latchford.jpbAs 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…

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 10.50.34 PMThe 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.)

The 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.

Feds Sue for Return of “Looted” Khmer Statue; Insider Emails Reveal Sotheby’s Was Warned Statue Was “Definitely Stolen”

On Wednesday, the U.S. government filed suit seeking to return a 10th Century stone warrior to Cambodia, where it was allegedly looted.

The statue is currently at Sotheby’s in New York, which was set to auction the piece on behalf of a private collector in March 2011. On the day of the sale, Sotheby’s was notified by Cambodian officials that the object had been looted from Koh Ker, an archaeological site 80 miles east of Angkor Watt.

The parties have been negotiating a settlement to the dispute for the past year, as the New York Times reported in February. But those negotiations ended abruptly Wednesday when the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed suit. Authorities will seize the statue on Thursday, the Times reported Wednesday.

In making their case for the statue’s return, the US Attorney cites revealing emails from a scholar warning the auction house that the statue should not be sold at public auction:

“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…Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from.

I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….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.”

The scholar later consulted with “culture spies and museum director” in Cambodia and told Sotheby’s it was not likely that government would pursue a claim. Sotheby’s proceeded with the sale, with officials saying in internal emails that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,'” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk.”

The New York  Times identified the scholar as Emma C. Bunker, an authority on Khmer art. She has written defending the right of collectors to buy ancient art, describing them as “not despoilers of the past but people of great intellectual curiosity who cherished the past long before the world was populated by scientifically trained archaeologists.”

There are frequent references in the federal complaint to another statue looted from the same site at “the museum,” an apparent reference to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which has a very similar statue that once served as a wrestling figure in Koh Ker. We’ve asked the museum for comment.

The back-story here is interesting: The head of Global Compliance for Sotheby’s is Jane Levine, a former member of the US Attorney’s office now suing for the statue’s return. Levine specialized in making the type of art crime cases her employer is now facing, and has written several articles on international trafficking in stolen art and artifacts. We’ve reached out to her for a comment.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said: “Sotheby’s strongly disputes the allegations made in this complaint. This sculpture was legally imported into the United States and   all relevant facts were openly declared.   We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left  Cambodia over the last one thousand years nor is there any such evidence  in this complaint. We have been in active discussions for a year with  both the US and Cambodian governments and  we had assured them that we would voluntarily maintain possession of this statue pending further discussion. Given that Cambodia has always  expressed its desire to resolve this situation amicably, and that  we had an understanding  with the US  Attorney’s  Office that no action would be filed pending  further discussion towards a resolution of this matter,  we are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously.”

HOT DOC: Here is the government’s complaint, which begins citing the internal emails on page 11: