Officials from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam are seeking the return of antiquities from the Denver Art Museum (DAM), saying that they were stolen from heritage sites and ancient temples in Southeast Asia.
Government representatives from these countries sent letters to the museum in May and June through US investigators about eight items and the lack of legal export permits. According to the Denver Post, which first reported the news, the museum did not respond. The museum also did not submit a statement to ARTnews in regard to these letters by press time.
Out of the eight items that Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam want returned, six were donated to the DAM by art scholar and former museum trustee Emma C. Bunker. Only one of the items, a 19th-century gilded bronze Buddha, came with any provenance information, but Bunker said she purchased it in 2012 from the London art dealer Jonathan Tucker. Tucker told DAM he acquired the Buddha from a private English collection but did not give the museum a name or contact information.
Before her death in 2021, Bunker had a close relationship with Douglas Latchford. The dealer and art collector is widely believed to have sold looted items to several major museums, resulting in dozens of works being repatriated by his estate, collectors who were his clients, and US government officials. Tucker was also an associate of Latchford.
Bunker and Latchford collaborated in a decades-long trafficking operation to legitimize Khmer antiquities, detailed in a three-part investigative report published by the Denver Post last December. Bunker and Latchford’s alleged methods included strategizing about how to forge signatures necessary for the import and sale of the antiquities, authoring books that gave further reliance to Latchford’s looted objects, and personally vouching for items that Bunker knew to have falsified provenance documents. Attorney Bradley J. Gordon described Latchford as using DAM “like a laundromat” through the museum’s display of loaned and gifted items that helped him establish a clean reputation for his other pieces.
In recent years, especially after the publication of the Denver Post‘s investigation, DAM has returned some of the looted items, removed Bunker’s name from a gallery wall in March, and returned $185,000 that the former trustee and her family had donated as part of a naming agreement. DAM also ended an Asian art acquisition fund dedicated in Bunker’s honor after her death in 2021.
However, DAM still holds more than 200 items from Bunker’s collection, with countries like Thailand and Vietnam requesting their return. The artifacts include a 2,000 year-old 9-inch-tall bronze dagger with a standing human figure on its handle and a 12th-century Buddha.
According to the Denver Post, the US Department of Homeland Security has been investigating the origins of the Southeast Asian pieces since last year.
DAM spokesperson Kristy Bassuener told the Denver Post in an email that the museum formally deaccessioned—or removed from its collection—five of the donated pieces in March. The museum is working with the US government to ensure their return, she said.
“The museum has cooperated with the U.S. government, including producing all requested materials, and will continue to do so as it responds to the government’s inquiries in its ongoing work to ensure the integrity of its collections,” Bassuener said.