High-level government representatives from three south-east Asian countries have complained that the Denver Art Museum continues to possesses looted artefacts and are demanding them back – as stolen antiquities remain an ongoing problem in US institutions.
Officials from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand have formally asked the Denver Art Museum (DAM) in Colorado to return eight pieces that were looted from temples and historical sites, the Denver Post first reported. The government officials notified DAM in May and June through correspondence from US investigators.
But the representatives say that DAM never responded to their letters. Moreover, the officials are aggrieved that DAM, one of the largest art museums in the country, still possesses hundreds of pieces acquired from the late Emma Bunker, a notorious art dealer who was named in criminal and civil cases for her role in smuggling artefacts, the Post reported.
Bunker, who died in 2021, was a close associate of Douglas Latchford, a disgraced art dealer who was accused of trading looted relics from Cambodia for decades.
Latchford died in 2020, but the Briton was charged in the US in 2019 with wire fraud, smuggling, and other crimes associated with antiquities trafficking.
Several pieces Bunker donated to DAM did not have provenances, ownership documentation that ensure an item was legally obtained, the Post reported.
Experts have raised concerns that such pieces were probably acquired during periods of civil unrest, including the Cambodian genocide of 1975 to 1979.
Many antiquities and art experts have celebrated countries attempting to reclaim their stolen objects, and have expressed disappointment at DAM’s collection practices, questioning why the museum would partner with Bunker despite her well-know legal problems and connection to Latchford.
Tess Davis, executive director of the campaign group Antiquities Coalition, called out DAM for not verifying the ethical acquisition of their pieces and still celebrating Bunker as recently as 2021.
“Why is [Denver Art Museum], a public institution with all the responsibilities and benefits that go along with that, not ensuring the integrity of its own collections?” Davis said to the Guardian.
“The accusations here don’t involve mistakes made in the colonial era, or, frankly, even the 20th century. These were actions that were taken in 2016, 2018, 2021,” Davis added.
Angela Chiu, an independent art expert and scholar based in London, similarly questioned why DAM has not returned the looted goods, especially as more pieces still remain in the museum’s possession.
“To learn that the museum seems to be taking a while to return those objects is kind of mysterious,” Chiu said to the Guardian. “I do worry.”
Chiu added that Bunker may not be the only donor with shady acquisitions, noting that DAM may not have processes in place to examine other collectors.
“This is just one donor. What about other people, too? Did they investigate, did they not investigate?” added Chiu.
The pieces in question include a 2,000-year-old dagger from Vietnam and a bronze Buddha statue from Thailand, and other culturally important ancient items.
Special agent David Keller, a Department of Homeland Security investigator for stolen cultural antiquities, told the Guardian that the reputations of Bunker and Latchford are widely known.
“For anyone to be surprised today would be, I think, lying, because [with] Bunker and Latchford, everybody knows,” Keller said to the Guardian.
In an email to the Guardian, a DAM spokesperson said the museum had been in contact with Cambodia and Thailand since 2019 and 2021, respectively.
The spokesperson added that DAM said the museum had removed five pieces donated by Bunker and has been working with US officials to return artefacts received from Bunker and Latchford since 2020.
“The museum is collaborating with the US Department of Justice to determine next steps in getting these objects to their nations of origin,” the spokesperson said to the Guardian.
But DAM in 2022 had defended its association with Bunkerin response to the Post’s investigation of her.
Museums in the US and globally have faced increased scrutiny for collecting items that are looted or stolen, largely from non-western countries.
Larger institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian Institution, have received backlash for housing items connected to artifact traffickers.
Racism plays a role in why artefacts from many non-western countries are acquired with less scrutiny or are not returned to countries of origins, critics say.
Chiu said that museums provide biased justifications for why they refuse to return looted artefacts, sometimes arguing that countries are not capable of caring for their own cultural relics or that art needs to be displayed in western institutions in order to be seen by more of the public.
“Some of the excuses museums have given over the decades for refusing to repatriate looted items have a racist tone,” Chiu told the Guardian. “These excuses are rooted in the colonialist and racist vision of the colonized countries needing western guidance to become ‘civilized’.”
Davis also noted that museums seem less concerned about ethical acquisition when it comes to non-western countries.
“I cannot imagine a museum purchasing major Italian antiquities within the last 10 years with the holes that were in this provenance,” Davis said to the Guardian, referring to Bunker’s donations of Asian art.
Experts have noted that there isn’t a currently reliable figure for how many museums possess stolen artefacts, and in what quantities and from which countries of origin.
Keller told the Guardian that his office was overseeing the recovery of stolen artefacts in at least eight US states and that more stolen antiquities are probably out there, not just in private individuals’ collections but in public and private cultural institutions.
“There is always going to be antiquities turning up somewhere,” said Keller, who added that museums and other institutions have a responsibility to make sure that their collections are obtained ethically.
“There are instances of museums kind of turning a blind eye to these cases,” Keller added.
He said that the goal was always to reunite countries of origin with stolen objects. In many cases, countries are open to loaning pieces to museums, so long as ownership is established and relics can be hosted by countries of origins as well.
Chiu noted that returning stolen artefacts is an opportunity for museums to create strengthened and meaningful relationships with other countries.
“When countries approach [museums] about their objects, this is a chance to create a new and meaningful connection between cultures that I think the public is interested in,” she said.
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