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Unmasking “The Scholar”: The Colorado woman who helped a global art smuggling operation flourish for decades

An investigation into how Emma C. Bunker helped Douglas Latchford sell stolen Cambodian antiquities

Sam Tabachnik - Staff portraits at ...
The sun shines through mist onto the Koh Ker temples complex, located about 75 miles from Siem Reap in Cambodia, on Oct. 26, 2019. The temple complex consists of more than 180 sanctuaries and was a target for looters looking to pilfer historic artifacts. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti, Ruom/Special to The Denver Post)
The sun shines through mist onto the Koh Ker temple complex, located about 75 miles from Siem Reap in Cambodia, on Oct. 26, 2019. The complex consists of more than 180 sanctuaries and was a target of looters looking to pilfer historic artifacts. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

KULEN MOUNTAIN, Cambodia — The Tadong temple sits tucked away at the base of this sacred mountain, its crumbling brick structure still upright after more than a thousand years and a bloody civil war.

The holy site draws Buddhist monks who come to meditate and practice mindfulness alongside neon-green rice paddies and farmers wrangling cattle. Ornate carvings remain visible under the lush vegetation. A series of false floors gives the illusion of temples stacked on temples.

But while the feet of an ancient statue of a lion remain nearby, its body is gone. This sight is replicated across the country at hundreds of temples: Buddhas with missing heads, shrines without inscriptions, Hindu gods with no arms.

It’s here, deep in the jungle, where eager looters spent decades robbing the country of its heritage, its spirit — and, the Cambodians say, the souls of their gods.

And it’s here, on the side of Kulen Mountain, where looters stole a sandstone sculpture depicting Prajnaparamita, the goddess of transcendent wisdom. The statue — 59 inches high, 15 inches wide — is missing one arm, the other chopped off at the elbow.

For more than two decades, this stolen relic sat more than 8,000 miles away in the Denver Art Museum’s collection, its journey marked by falsified documents, an elaborate laundering scheme and the assistance of a Colorado woman referred to in court records only as “The Scholar.”

In this three-part special report, The Denver Post details how that respected Denver Art Museum consultant, Emma C. Bunker, helped a man accused of being one of the world’s most prolific art smugglers flourish for decades, legitimizing his looted collection through her work. The Post’s findings highlight the cozy nature between curators, scholars, museums and dealers — and how incentives align to allow the dirty world of the international art market to proliferate.

The investigation also reveals how the Denver Art Museum became a way station for stolen works, serving as a stamp of approval for plundered artifacts. And it tells the little-known story of a 1960s temple heist in rural Thailand that now has U.S. authorities investigating pieces held in the Mile High City.

U.S. and Cambodian officials say the sales of the Prajnaparamita and other relics were part of a decades-long illicit antiquities operation led by Douglas Latchford, a renowned Bangkok-based art collector and dealer. He was indicted in 2019 by a federal grand jury in New York on a host of felony charges, dying before he could stand trial.

But Latchford didn’t do it alone.

Douglas Latchford, left, and Emma C. Bunker (Photos by Tang Chhin/AFP via Getty Images and provided by CU-Denver)
Douglas Latchford, left, and Emma C. Bunker (Photos by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images and provided by the University of Colorado Denver)

“He’s selling stolen property,” said Bradley J. Gordon, an attorney leading the Cambodian government’s efforts to reclaim that nation’s lost history. “And Emma was part of the sales pitch.”

Court documents and previously unreported emails show Bunker, who died at her home in Denver last year, played a critical role in helping Latchford sell and loan items known to have been pillaged from ancient temples like Tadong. Records from Latchford, shared with The Post, show Bunker overtly discussing how to falsify documents to skirt laws designed to prevent ancient relics from being sold on the open market. And her cachet as a respected scholar from a prominent museum helped validate his pieces as they sold for big money.

The pair also wrote three books together on Khmer art that now are being used as treasure maps for Cambodian archaeologists and Thai government officials hunting for plundered pieces.

“They’re quite insidious works of so-called scholarship that attempt to cover up looting,” said Angela Chiu, an independent scholar who has extensively studied the Asian antiquities trade.

Denver’s art museum recently relinquished four items connected to Latchford and Bunker after the U.S. government moved to seize them last year, including the Prajnaparamita from Kulen Mountain. And now authorities have turned their focus to the museum’s Thai collection.

“They used Denver as a laundromat,” Gordon said.

The Prasat Tadong temple, built in the 9th century at the feet of Kulen mountains, is pictured on Aug. 10, 2022. TOP RIGHT: The broken pedestal of a statue at Prasat Tadong is pictured that same day. BOTTOM: Rice fields surround the remote Prasat Tadong temple, located on the side of Kulen Mountain in Cambodia. (Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)
TOP LEFT: The Prasat Tadong temple, built in the ninth century at the base of Kulen Mountain, is pictured on Aug. 10, 2022. TOP RIGHT: The broken pedestal of a statue at Prasat Tadong is pictured that same day. BOTTOM: Rice fields surround the remote Prasat Tadong temple, located at the foot of Kulen Mountain in Cambodia. (Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

The Post’s year-long investigation included on-the-ground reporting in Cambodia and Thailand, a review of hundreds of state and federal court documents, and interviews with 34 art experts, government officials, former looters, cultural heritage investigators, and Bunker’s friends and contemporaries. The Post also examined dozens of private emails from Latchford’s computer, which his family shared with the Cambodians after his death.

Bunker’s daughter, Harriet, said the allegations against her mother seem out of character and hard to believe. That just isn’t the woman she knew and loved.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe my mom had this whole secret life we didn’t know about.”

The scholar’s other three surviving children, along with a Latchford family representative, declined to comment for this series.

Denver Art Museum representatives refused multiple interview requests for this series, only answering questions by email. They defended the museum’s association with Bunker, citing her decades of financial and scholarly contributions to the museum.

Following Latchford’s indictment, Bunker had an opportunity to right some of her wrongs before her death, said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that fights artifact trafficking.

But she squandered it.

“The story of Emma Bunker should serve as a warning to those in the art world,” Davis said. “While she escaped facing justice in a courtroom, she died under the shadow of prosecution. As a result, she will be remembered not for her scholarship, but as a criminal accomplice whose legacy is plunder and fraud.”

Screengrab from a court document
Screengrab from 2021 court documents. Click to read more.

“The brother she never had”

Born in Pennsylvania in 1930, Bunker received a master’s degree in art history from New York University, studying under esteemed scholars of Asian art.

In 1956, she married John Bunker, a sugar executive and son of a U.S. ambassador. The couple moved to Denver six years later.

Before turning her focus to Southeast Asia, Bunker became a leading authority on personal adornment in China and the art of the horse-riding tribes of the Eurasian Steppes.

She spent six decades as a Denver Art Museum research consultant, board member and volunteer, and as a visiting teacher at Colorado College.

When Bunker died last year at 90, the museum renamed its Southeast Asian art gallery after her and launched an Asian art acquisition fund in her name, raising tens of thousands of dollars to purchase new pieces for its collection. Museum officials celebrated Bunker’s “academic and scholarly contributions to the field of Asian art.” (The Bunker fund’s online donation page was removed this week in the wake of The Post’s reporting, and museum officials on Friday confirmed “the fund is no longer active.”)

The Bunker Gallery section of the Denver Art Museum's Southeast Asian art galleries at the Martin Building is pictured on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
The Bunker Gallery section of the Denver Art Museum’s Southeast Asian galleries at the Martin Building is pictured on Oct. 25, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Bunker — known to friends as “Emmy” — leveraged connections with some of the world’s largest collectors and dealers to help museums in Denver and San Francisco boost their collections. She and her husband also generously donated more than 200 pieces to Denver’s art museum.

“Emmy was closer to dealers than she was to the academic community,” said Joyce Clark, who became good friends with Bunker in the early 2000s. “Part of her was always operating in that dealer world.”

And a central figure in that world: Douglas Latchford.

Born in India and educated in Britain, Latchford bought his first statue in the mid-1950s for $700, he said in interviews, before getting more into collecting in the 1960s.

Starting in the early 1970s, Latchford — who was once revered in Cambodia for his generosity to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh — supplied major auction houses, art dealers and museums around the world with Cambodia antiquities from the ancient Khmer empire, authorities outlined in his 2019 indictment.

It’s not clear when Latchford and Bunker initially met. The Colorado scholar once said they were first introduced in 1978 at Spink & Son, a London auction house, and went to a party.

“Thought him bizarre as wearing a sarong and 6-foot-4,” according to a statement Bunker made in connection with a 2012 federal court case.

Bunker said she then ran into him again some two decades later at an Asian art meeting, and he asked her why she never came to Cambodia.

“Douglas Latchford is like the brother she never had,” the author of the 2013 document wrote.

But that timeline may not have been accurate.

Hiram Woodward, a friend and former curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said Bunker told him that she met Latchford prior to a 1972 article she wrote about a prized collection of Thai bronzes.

Over time, Bunker and Latchford developed an extremely close bond.

“Ever since I knew her, it was always Douglas and Emmy,” Clark said.

Bunker used to call him “puppy” and she always signed their emails with “love.”

When Clark would compliment Bunker on a nice piece of jewelry or a particular outfit, she’d often say, “Oh, Douglas made me buy that” or “Douglas bought this for me,” Clark recalled.

The dealer and the scholar spoke every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and emailed constantly, friends said.

Bunker’s daughter and other friends said they believed Bunker may have been in love with Latchford, though it was unclear whether their relationship ever became romantic.

“It was obvious to see them together,” said Geraldine Cox, a close friend of Latchford’s. “The way she looked at him — it was as plain as the nose on your face that she wanted more out of the relationship and Douglas was actually quite embarrassed about it.”

He treated her like royalty when she came to visit, friends and family said.

“But in a sexual way, no,” Harriet Bunker, Emma’s daughter, said. “I do think Douglas was a very, very important person in her life.”

In emails reviewed by The Post, Bunker and Latchford carry on what appears like a long-distance relationship: They send each other articles, complain about others in the art world and open up about health issues as they both aged.

The two didn’t just communicate on Southeast Asian art. They also trekked deep into the jungle to explore Cambodia’s exalted ruins.

In their writings, Latchford and Bunker describe scenes reminiscent of an Indiana Jones flick: The intrepid Western adventures helicoptering into remote Cambodian jungles to unearth and preserve long-neglected relics of Khmer’s imperial past.

The pair co-authored a 2003 article in which they detail one such excursion to Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire in northeast Cambodia. They strode past signs warning of landmines, hacking through thick vegetation as they soaked in the “pale but seductive memory of the city’s former beauty,” bemoaning myriad examples of looting and destruction.

TOP: A visitor approaches the seven??'tiered pyramid of Prasat Thom at Koh Ker in Cambodia on Aug. 10, 2022. BOTTOM LEFT: One of the chambers at the Prasat Thom temple in Koh Ker is pictured that same day with several pedestals of missing statues that were likely looted. BOTTOM RIGHT: Trees grow over a structure at Prasat Pram in Koh Ker on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)
TOP: A visitor approaches the seven‑tiered pyramid of Prasat Thom in Koh Ker, Cambodia, on Aug. 10, 2022. BOTTOM LEFT: One of the chambers at the Prasat Thom temple in Koh Ker is pictured that same day with several pedestals of missing statues that were likely looted. BOTTOM RIGHT: Trees grow over a structure at Prasat Pram in Koh Ker on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

“Only the fearless” among their cohort, they wrote, braved the bamboo ladders leading to the top of the majestic seven-tiered temple at Prasat Thom, built in the 10th century to honor King Jayavarman IV.

One of those fearless adventurers was Angus Forsyth, a Hong Kong attorney and art collector. Bunker led the trips, he said, directing where the group should go. They stayed in fancy hotels, enjoyed hearty meals and were treated to behind-the-scenes tours of reserve collections at Cambodian museums.

“It was an exploration trip in many ways,” Forsyth said.

Latchford and Bunker wrote of the elation they felt being “among the first in modern times to revisit a site that still exudes a rare exoticism.”

“Having seen its jungle-covered ruins in situ,” the authors wrote, “we were now in some sense forever part of its history.”

A woman stands among the structures at Koh Ker on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti, Ruom/Special to The Denver Post)
A woman stands among the structures in Koh Ker, Cambodia, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

Some of the most impressive showcases of the city’s mighty past are large-scale statues on display in Phnom Penh and at prestigious museums abroad, the pair wrote.

These included two kneeling guardian figures that flanked the entrance to the rich Khmer sculpture gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A third was showcased in the Denver Art Museum: a 10th-century sandstone statue of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection.

In early 2002, Bunker and Latchford continued, they had somehow located a long-lost piece from a private collection in Europe.

The statue was in “dreadful condition,” the pair noted — its arms and hands missing, its legs destroyed after being ripped from its base. They were “determined to see it returned to Cambodia, since it represents an unexplored aspect of Khmer culture.”

Latchford purchased the sculpture and presented it to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh during an October 2002 ceremony. He and Bunker posed for a photo in front of the newly returned item with the daughter of the late Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi.

“All in all,” the pair wrote at the conclusion of the article, “it was a wonderful day filled with goodwill and promise for the future of the National Museum in Cambodia.”

Not mentioned in this piece: the fact that the Rama in the Denver museum was looted. So were the guardians in the Met. All of them have ties to Latchford, the Cambodians say, and have since been returned by the museums.

A visitor walks through the inner courtyard of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)
A visitor walks through the inner courtyard of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)

“Extremely generous” donations

The 2002 ceremony underscores the complicated dichotomy at play among Latchford, Bunker and the Cambodians: They were at once viewed as national heroes — foreigners who brought great interest and much-needed capital to their war-torn country — who also are accused of pillaging and shepherding so many of Cambodia’s national treasures to overseas collections.

Both devoted major time and resources to bolster the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

“Emmy considered the National Museum her home,” Clark said. “I think it was the most important thing in her life.”

Bunker in 2004 recruited a significant donor to help with a project to take an entire inventory of the museum’s collection, an undertaking that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took seven years to complete.

Latchford gave the museum a host of relics, including “an extremely generous” donation of Khmer gold treasures, the museum’s then-director wrote in Bunker and Latchford’s 2008 book.

A Bossu (Hunchback) statue gifted by Douglas Latchford is on display inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)
A Bossu statue gifted by Douglas Latchford is on display inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)

“Emmy and Douglas have actively supported the museum, including bringing many international visitors to the museum and providing funds for improving conditions in the museum’s storeroom,” wrote Hab Touch, then-director of the National Museum, in the forward to Bunker and Latchford’s second book, “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods.” “This is a wonderful gift to the Cambodian people and will allow them to possess and visualize a little-known aspect of Khmer culture.”

Visitors walking around the National Museum and its grounds are bound to spot both of their names on antiquity descriptions and plaques celebrating their generosity.

A small red kiosk next to the museum, now used to store extraneous materials, honors Bunker and Latchford for a $999 donation in 2004.

Inside the museum, near the back of the main entrance hall, a bronze plaque notes the “generous support and assistance” from a collection of people who made a massive 2009 lighting project possible.

Among the names: Latchford, Bunker, and Doris and Nancy Wiener — all of whom would later be identified by investigators in illicit antiquities cases or charged with crimes related to trafficking stolen artworks.

LEFT: A donor plaque with Douglas Latchford and Emma Bunker's names hangs inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. RIGHT: Another donor plaque is pictured that same day. (Photos by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)
LEFT: A donor plaque with Douglas Latchford and Emma Bunker’s names hangs inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. RIGHT: Another donor plaque is pictured that same day. (Photos by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)

Beginning of the court battles

Rumors circulated for years about Latchford’s alleged exploits, but it was a 2012 civil case filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in federal court in New York City that blew the rumblings out into the open — and began a seven-year odyssey that ultimately led to Latchford’s indictment and Bunker’s involvement erupting into public view.

The case pitted the U.S. government against Sotheby’s auction house, one of the world’s largest brokers of fine arts.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

At issue: a magnificent 10th-century sandstone statue dubbed “The Athlete,” which the Cambodians knew to have been stolen from Koh Keh.

What made the case so illuminating was that it didn’t immediately get settled out of court. This allowed the fight to play out publicly — and subsequent filings divulged extensive information about how Latchford, Bunker and the auction houses allegedly operated in concert.

The athlete sculpture — also called the Duryodhana — was believed to have been stolen around 1972 via an organized looting network, federal prosecutors alleged in a 2012 complaint. It was then smuggled across the border to a Thai dealer, before Latchford bought it.

Prosecutors say he had trouble selling the statue due its “lack of legitimate provenance” — or ownership history — “and missing feet.” Experts say statues broken at the feet are a tell-tale sign of looting.

But in 1975, Latchford consigned it to Spink & Son, the London auction house, where a Belgian businessman bought it. After his death, the businessman’s widow agreed in 2010 to sell it through Sotheby’s.

And when the auction house needed an expert to write its catalog entry and give a lecture for the sale, Latchford recommended Bunker, prosecutors alleged.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s forfeiture filing in the 2012 case doesn’t use Bunker’s name — instead calling her “The Scholar,” as she would continue to be referred to in future cases — but motions filed by Sotheby’s attorneys included unredacted emails that reveal Bunker to be the expert referenced.

“I have been doing a little catchup research on Koh Ker, and do not think that you should sell the (Duryodhana) at a public auction,” Bunker wrote in a June 2010 email, citing evidence that the statue’s feet were still on the pedestal at the ancient temple. “The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen.”

Screenshot of a document
Screengrab from Sotheby’s civil case in New York. Click to read more.

Bunker said she didn’t feel comfortable writing the description for the 500-pound statute under the circumstances, saying the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for it back.

Four weeks later, Bunker changed her tune. The Cambodians, she came to believe through her “culture spies” inside the government, wouldn’t ask for it back, clearing the way for its sale — and for the scholar to make a presentation on its meaning and value for the auction house.

“…legally and ethically you can happily sell the piece,” Bunker wrote in another email, “and since it is probably the last chance to buy such a treasure, should get a very good price.”

Bunker, in a PowerPoint slide prepared for the auction house, claimed she had first seen the statue at Spink & Son in the late 1960s. Crucially, this came before 1970, a year most museums and auction houses use as a cut-off for acquiring cultural property without fully documented provenance.

But she couldn’t have seen it at that time and place, prosecutors alleged. The Duryodhana wasn’t believed to have been looted until 1972.

The scholar, in a later email, suggested Sotheby’s may not want to “show or mention the feet” were still in Koh Ker — the visual proof that the antiquity was looted.

“No matter what goes on, there (are) always complaints about cultural property,” Bunker wrote, “but it will probably be from academics, not the Cambodians.”

Despite Bunker clearly signaling to the auction house that it had been looted, Sotheby’s put the Duryodhana on the front of its catalog. Its estimated value: $2 million to $3 million.

But Cambodia did want the piece back — asking Sotheby’s on the very morning of its March 2011 auction to remove the relic from the block.

Sotheby’s did, but rejected the country’s request to return it. So Cambodia enlisted the U.S. government on its behalf.

A visitor examines Bhima statue, left, as Duryodhana stands on the right on display inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)
A visitor examines a Bhima statue, left, as a Duryodhana statue stands on the right on display inside the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Cindy Liu/Special to The Denver Post)

Neither Latchford nor Bunker were charged or named in the government’s complaint, but federal officials in 2013 came to Colorado to meet with the scholar, according to a person familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about the meeting.

Bunker at the time said she was aware Latchford knew people from Spink, the London auction house, “but does not know how he bought and sold things,” according to a summary of the conversation with federal officials obtained by The Post.

The June 2013 interview at a law office in downtown Denver was not confrontational, according to the document, with the federal agents saying Bunker “was not a target of a criminal investigation.” They wanted to ask the scholar for background information for their civil case — “though there was (a) hint that a criminal case was in the offing.”

Officials’ questions centered on Bunker’s relationship with Sotheby’s, and she was peppered with queries about her emails with auction house officials.

Bunker told investigators that “she never discussed Cambodian law with Sotheby’s staff,” according to the summary. She “did not know that there were any Cambodian laws and was surprised to learn of the many laws that have recently been cited.”

In 2013, Sotheby’s and the U.S. government agreed on a settlement. The Duryodhana would be sent back to Cambodia and federal prosecutors would withdraw allegations that the auction house knew its unsavory provenance.

The ancient statue is now prominently displayed in Cambodia’s National Museum, arranged with a series of others to replicate the royal battle it once depicted at Prasat Chen in Koh Keh. But while the Duryodhana is back, other pedestals surrounding it remain empty.

“What’s the point of building temples without statues?” said Muong Chanraksmey, an officer with Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture, as he gazed at the antiquities during an August museum tour.

Bunker was afraid during this ordeal that federal prosecutors “were going to come after her,” Clark said.

But the scholar denied to her friend that Latchford had anything to do with the Duryodhana.

“Obviously that was a lie,” Clark said. “She was covering for him.”

The remains of a bas-relief over a door of one of the temples of Prasat Thom, Koh Ker in Cambodia are seen on Aug. 10, 2022. The complex was one of the most targeted by looters. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)
The remains of a bas-relief over a door of one of the temples of Prasat Thom in Koh Ker, Cambodia, are seen on Aug. 10, 2022. The complex was one of the most targeted by looters. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

“A conspiracy of the willing”

Three years after the Sotheby’s drama ended, Bunker’s name again popped up in a major court proceeding. And this time there were criminal charges involved.

On March 17, 2016, during the famed Asia Week New York, investigators raided the Nancy Wiener Gallery in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Authorities were after three prized items valued at nearly $1 million, including a 10th-century bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia.

Wiener, the daughter of well-known gallery owner Doris Wiener, was arrested and accused of using her business to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of antiquities from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

Investigators alleged that “co-conspirator #1” — Latchford — sold Wiener the stolen bronze Buddha in 2011 for $500,000. She later admitted to knowing it had been illegally imported, sending it to an art restorer to clean off the dirt and debris.

Wiener then began falsifying the provenance, enlisting Latchford and someone only identified as “co-conspirator #2” to publish the antiquity in a 2011 book. But as she stood before a New York court last year, Wiener told the world who that second person was.

“I received three provenance statements for this object that I knew were false,” Wiener said as she pleaded guilty, according to a court transcript.

Two came from Latchford. The third, she told the court, came from “Emma Bunker, an academic and consultant who often worked with Latchford and who altered the second provenance, also naming Latchford as the owner.”

Screengrab from Nancy Wiener plea agreement. Click to read more.
Screengrab from Nancy Wiener plea agreement. Click to read more.

That 2011 book: Bunker and Latchford’s “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past.”

“Publishing a photograph of a looted antiquity is a common laundering practice,” a federal agent wrote in the complaint.

In another email reviewed by investigators, Latchford said he typically gave Bunker “bronze statues in exchange for false letters of provenance.”

“I never gave a cover for anything,” Bunker told The New York Times in 2017, saying she did not recall the matters cited in the Wiener case.

As Wiener stood before a judge last year, she offered a rare insight into the dirty world of the international art market.

“For decades I conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiquities with vague or even no provenance was the norm,” the gallery owner said, according to court transcripts. “Obfuscation and silence were accepted responses to questions concerning the source from which an object had been obtained. In short, it was a conspiracy of the willing.”

The Wiener case changed Bunker, Clark said. She would bring up Wiener’s name constantly, referring to the gallery owner as “that bitch.”

“She thought Nancy was trying to destroy her,” Clark said. She tried to tell her friend that Wiener was just trying to save herself.

“That’s her problem,” Clark said Bunker replied. “Not mine.”

More than anything, Clark said, Bunker was upset that her name was being soiled in the case “after all that she had done for Cambodia.”

Wiener declined to comment to The Post.

But emails between Latchford and Bunker, taken from Latchford’s computer and reviewed by The Post, show that she was hardly a passive player in the dealer’s illicit antiquities sales.

The Prasat Krachap temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, is pictured on Aug. 10, 2022. A former looter named Toek Tik told government officials he had removed “Skanda and Shiva,” “Skanda on a Peacock” and 11 other statues from this location. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)

“They’re like Bonnie and Clyde”

On June 28, 2009, Bunker wrote to her old friend that she’d found a variety of letterheads while going through her Denver apartment. These included a who’s who of major international auction houses and prominent dealers: Spink & Son, J.J. Klejman, Adolph Loewi Inc. and Mathias Komor.

“I think we could be in business for quite a while and sell anything you want at auction, if the pieces are unknown to Martin, the Hun and the spiders,” Bunker wrote in the email.

Gordon, the attorney working with Cambodia, said Martin is believed to be Martin Lerner, the former curator at the Met in New York, while “the spiders” referred to Wiener and her mother, Doris. (It’s not clear who the “Hun” might be.)

The scholar added that she also found a letter signed by Adrian Maynard — Spink’s former director — “so we have his signature, too.”

“What a giant hoot,” Bunker wrote at the end of her email. “Giggles and more giggles.”

An email
A recreation of an email from Emma Bunker to Douglas Latchford on June 28, 2009. Click here to see the original email in full.

This email clearly shows Bunker helping to create fake provenances, using fake signatures, to enable Latchford to move his looted pieces, Gordon said.

“For many people, she could have been a respected scholar,” the lawyer said. “But I see the emails and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ They’re like Bonnie and Clyde or something.”

The Sotheby’s and Wiener cases exposed the inner workings of the international art market in a way not previously seen by the general public. More and more, issues of provenance and how museums or collectors acquired antiquities started coming into focus.

And this put Bunker and Latchford increasingly on the defensive. In emails, the two complained about news articles, mocked references to “blood antiquities” and questioned their once-unbreakable relationship with the Cambodians.

“…I just don’t trust anyone these days,” Bunker told Latchford in a 2016 email, two months before authorities raided Wiener’s New York gallery.

Latchford replied that the Cambodians would be lucky to get any other antiquities back, calling their performance “a disgrace,” as he trashed the French and someone in Phnom Penh he referred to as a “whore out of water.”

The art dealer recounted a recent visit with Touch, the high-ranking official with the National Museum and Ministry of Culture, with whom Bunker and Latchford had cultivated close ties. Latchford said he looked Touch in the face, asking, “Do you really think I did these things?”

“He looked embarrassed, hung his head, and said no,” Latchford told Bunker. “What to say?”

In a 2018 email, Bunker sent Latchford an article from Chiu that raised questions about how the University of London acquired a pair of questionable artifacts. The article also cited a New York Times report naming Bunker and Latchford as co-conspirators in the Wiener case.

“I’m thoroughly sick of all this crap,” the Colorado scholar complained. “This is only going to stop with a gift of a substantial number of objects to the source countries. No one will ever be able to sell anything in the future, unless it has a proven provenance.”

An email
A recreation of an email from Emma Bunker on June 12, 2018. Click to see the original email in full.

Legitimizing looted art through publication

Bunker and Latchford’s three books, cited by authorities in the Wiener case, became controversial works. They were, and still are, praised in some scholarly circles as critical volumes, showcasing relics of Cambodia’s past never before seen by the general public — or even local archaeologists.

But investigators, art crime experts, and Cambodian and Thai officials believe these so-called scholarly endeavors were published for a very different reason: to legitimate and boost the values of Latchford’s looted collection.

“It’s a laundering project from the get-go and you can see it a mile away,” said Ashley Thompson, a specialist in Southeast Asian art history at SOAS University of London.

She and other experts in the field say they won’t use these books with their students, “because it contributes to the legitimation of those publications, which are very concretely contributing to the legitimation of looting.”

All three books have Bunker and Latchford’s names on the cover, but Bunker acknowledged in emails that she was the one who wrote them.

“Adoration and Glory,” published in 2004, includes prefaces from Cambodian royalty and cultural elites: Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, then the minister of culture, as well as the top two officials from the National Museum.

“The first time I saw the photographs of Khmer sculptures collected by Emma and Douglas for this book, I realized that while I work with Khmer art every day, I had only been familiar with a small proportion of what exists,” wrote Touch, the National Museum’s deputy director. He called the pair “great friends and supporters” of the museum, impressed by their knowledge and passion for Khmer art.

“This invaluable work opens a new chapter in Khmer history and civilization and provides a fascinating insight into the glorious Khmer culture,” he said.

There’s little provenance for any of the sculptures showcased in the book — an enormous red flag, experts say. Many simply say “private collection” or “anonymous loan” to a particular museum. There’s no mention of where they came from or how they came into these collections.

These books, the head of UNESCO Phnom Penh once told The New York Times, represent “the inventory of the missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.”

Bunker and Latchford, in the authors’ preface, preemptively defended their work, saying “civil war and terrorism over the past 50 years have so devastated Cambodia that many of the treasures included in this volume would probably not have survived had they not been cared for abroad.”

There are many reasons for the lack of ownership history, the authors wrote. “To ignore pieces without provenance denies the world the information they can provide.”

Bunker, like Latchford, ardently defended the role of dealers and collectors in the art market.

“Collectors and dealers are responsible for much that is good in the art world,” the scholar wrote in one 2005 essay, saying they were once considered “culture heroes who rescued and preserved artifacts from ancient cultures.”

But when Cambodian and American authorities read Bunker and Latchford’s books, they see scores of priceless statues pillaged from ancient temples.

Sharon Levin, the former chief of the asset forfeiture unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and one of the lead prosecutors on the Sotheby’s case, recalled lugging “Adoration and Glory” to Cambodia as they prepared for the case.

The book
The book “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” a core reference for art experts by Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford, is pictured in New York on March 9, 2017. (Photo by Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times)

A former looter sat with the American officials, she said, pointing out all the items from the book that he had removed from the temples.

“We thought maybe there would be two or three pieces,” Levin said. “But he’s like, ‘We took this and this and this.’ This was a showcase catalog on what had been removed.”

Gordon, the attorney working with Cambodia, and his team consult the books constantly, showing photos to former looters as they collect evidence for American prosecutors, museums and private collectors.

“What’s really troubling about the books is that they disguise where the pieces came from,” he said, noting that items they knew to be looted from Cambodia are listed in the books as originating in Thailand.

The cover of “Adoration and Glory” showcases a 10th-century sandstone statue of Skanda and Shiva that Latchford’s daughter recently returned to Cambodia. A former looter, Toek Tik, told officials that he had taken the grandiose relic from Prasat Krachap, a temple at Koh Ker.

The 495-page book is full of similar examples, including a magnificent “Skanda on a Peacock” statue that Latchford sold to a private collector for $1.5 million and which was seized last year by the U.S. government after Cambodia presented evidence that it had been looted from the same Koh Ker temple.

Keo Chhea, the Cambodian ambassador to the United States, speaks at an event that celebrated the return of 30 antiquities to Cambodia, in New York, Aug. 8, 2022. Chhea urged collectors, dealers and museums to intensify their efforts to review whether items they hold might have been stolen by looters. At right is the statue
Keo Chhea, the Cambodian ambassador to the United States, speaks at an event that celebrated the return of 30 antiquities to Cambodia, in New York, on Aug. 8, 2022. Chhea urged collectors, dealers and museums to intensify their efforts to review whether items they hold might have been stolen by looters. At right is the statue “Skanda on a Peacock.” (Photo by Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

All four items returned to Cambodia by the Denver Art Museum in August are featured in the book, though the objects’ ownership histories are obscured. The description alongside the seventh-to-eighth-century sculpture of Surya, the sun god, says it was an “anonymous loan” to the Denver museum. Latchford’s name is nowhere to be found, even though court papers later said he was the man behind the deal.

Latchford and Bunker published two additional books, “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods” in 2008 and “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past” in 2011.

“It is an important book,” one reviewer wrote of “Khmer Bronzes” in 2015, “both as a source of potential controversy and as groundbreaking scholarship.”

Once again, Latchford’s name doesn’t actually appear alongside any of the prized statues in the book.

Eighty items, though, are attributed to the “Skanda Trust” — an offshore account set up by Latchford around the same time as the book’s publication and three months after U.S. authorities blocked the Sotheby’s sale, the “Pandora Papers” investigation found last year. Leaked tax documents in that investigation showed Latchford used the trust to pass antiquities to his daughter.

Publishing looted antiquities serves two important functions, art experts and cultural heritage investigators say: validating the objects to ease their sales and improving their prices.

“The two of them quite cynically exploited the way the art market works, which is (that) publications matter,” said Chiu, the independent art expert, noting that the heavy, glossy volumes even imitated museum catalogs. “They performed these actions that they knew the art market wanted.”

Latchford’s emails show how he used the books to market his antiquities to wealthy collectors.

In 2004, the Bangkok dealer was negotiating a major sale with James Clark, the co-founder of Netscape. But the American billionaire had some concerns about the possibility that the Southeast Asian countries might ask for pieces back in the future.

To assuage his prospective buyer, Latchford told Clark that all the artifacts had been published in “Adoration and Glory,” a book that had been approved by the Princess of Cambodia — who was also the minister of culture — along with the heads of the National Museum.

“…had there been any question of the above problem, none of the above could, or would have endorsed the book,” Latchford wrote in an email, which was reviewed by The Post.

An email
A recreation of an email from Douglas Latchford to Jim Clark on Oct. 19, 2004. Some personal information, including email addresses, has been redacted. Click to see the original email in full.

Clark, evidently, was convinced. He bought dozens of relics from Latchford over the course of half a decade for roughly $35 million. In January, American investigators announced that Clark had surrendered the lot after being shown evidence that they were all stolen.

Eight relics from Clark’s collection — which have since been returned to the Cambodians — were depicted in the “Khmer Bronzes” book. Four pieces he bought were, at the time, on loan to the Denver Art Museum.

“As a naïve person,” Clark told The New York Times, “I had apparently somewhat ignorantly acquired one of the nicest private collections of Cambodian antiquities.”

Clark couldn’t be reached for comment for this series.

Tensions at the end

As federal authorities closed in on Latchford in 2018, the Bangkok dealer tried to negotiate a deal to keep himself — and Bunker — out of prison.

“Mr. Latchford and his family are fearful of information that the Government of the United States of America may possess about Mr. Latchford and his long-time collaborator, Ms. Emma C. Bunker… and of potential criminal charges that accordingly could be brought against him and/or Ms. Bunker,” Gordon, the attorney working for Cambodia, wrote in a leaked 2018 memo to the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.

In the memo, first reported in the “Pandora Papers” investigation last year, Gordon says the Cambodian government believed it could repatriate a significant number of objects — but it would have to come as part of a deal with Latchford.

“However, one of the important conditions set forth by Mr. Latchford (and one which is acceptable to the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia) is forbearance of potential criminal prosecution by the Government of the United States of America of Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker,” Gordon wrote.

As part of any deal, the lawyer wrote, Cambodia would “actively encourage other countries not to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Latchford, his family or Ms. Bunker, and will not pursue such itself.”

Chiu called the memo “quite extraordinary.”

“It really tells you who was most important to him,” she said.

But as the stakes escalated — with the Sotheby’s case, the Wiener arrest and Latchford’s impending legal troubles — cracks emerged.

Latchford appeared fearful that Bunker may have turned on him toward the end, Gordon said. The Bangkok dealer even recorded a conversation with his longtime friend in 2018, sharing the audio with a trusted person.

Bunker does most of the talking in the nearly 13-minute phone call, with Latchford revealing little aside from pleasantries.

“Everything is quiet here,” he says at one point, responding to Bunker’s question about anything new and exciting going on in his world. “No news is good news.”

“It seems like he was paranoid,” Gordon said. Latchford’s family instructed the attorney during negotiations with the Cambodians not to speak with Bunker.

Latchford, in emails with other friends in the art world, started complaining about Bunker’s vendettas against other curators and dealers.

“She’s highly dangerous,” he told Nancy Wiener in a 2015 email, “and is capable of saying anything.”

Bunker, for her part, expressed anger over how Latchford may have been using her scholarship.

“I am really furious, as I am being subtly connected with a whole bloody mess with which I was never connected,” she told Latchford in one 2018 email. “…This is never going to go away, and will haunt everyone until it is resolved.”

She called it a “tragedy” for her friend’s legacy, “as you have cared a lot for Khmer culture, did so much good for Cambodia, and are so knowledgeable.”

“Please think about what I have written,” she said, “as I care for you and your family, but none of all this is any longer acceptable.”

An email
A recreation of an email from Emma Bunker on June 29, 2018. Click to see the original email in full.

United States of America v. Douglas Latchford

On Nov. 27, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Latchford with five criminal counts, including wire fraud and smuggling, in a case that sent shockwaves through the global art market.

“Over the course of his lengthy career, Douglas Latchford continued to act as a conduit for recently looted Cambodian antiquities,” prosecutors alleged in the 26-page grand jury indictment.

The Bangkok dealer was accused of falsifying provenances and fabricating invoices and shipping documents to facilitate the sale of looted goods across the world. The court papers cite examples from the Sotheby’s and Wiener cases — with “The Scholar” and the Denver Art Museum featuring prominently in the government’s allegations.

Federal investigators included a particularly damning email, in which “The Scholar” — aka Bunker — allegedly suggested that Latchford lie to avoid being linked with two significant, and looted, Cambodia statues.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be known to have been associated with the Koh Ker Guardian figures,” she wrote, according to the indictment. “…Let’s fudge a little, and just put the blame squarely on” Spink, the London auction house.

In another email, Latchford forwarded Wiener one of Bunker’s letters of provenance for the Naga Buddha.

“Please, is this OK?” Latchford wrote, according to the indictment. “Please let (Bunker) and me know.”

Latchford’s indictment made Bunker extremely anxious, said Joyce Clark, her longtime friend. Whenever she and Bunker spoke, Latchford’s name always came up.

“She thought he was being treated so unfairly,” Clark said. “She’d make comments like, ‘They forgot they even knew about these pieces because of him.’”

Bunker expressed fear about how much lawyer fees would cost, Clark said. At the end of her life, she didn’t have “so much positive involvement with Cambodia. She wasn’t optimistic and hopeful. It was really just trying to protect herself.”

At one point, Clark asked Bunker point-blank if she was in the same situation as Roxanna Brown, a well-known art historian who was indicted as part of a federal investigation into looted Thai artifacts more than a decade ago.

“She said no,” Clark said.

In the end, however, Bunker was never charged. Latchford, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, died in August 2020 before he could stand trial.

“The wheels of justice did not turn fast enough to see her or Latchford convicted,” said Davis, of the Antiquities Coalition. “But others may not be so lucky.”

Those close to the case wonder how she escaped prosecution. Could she have struck a deal with the government? Did she flip on her best friend?

Evidence from Latchford’s grand jury indictment remains under seal. Prosecutors never had the chance to call witnesses or file public motions in the criminal case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this series.

Bunker did send unspecified documents upon request to a federal investigator in August 2011, according to the summary of her conversation with federal authorities during the Sotheby’s case.

The agent from Homeland Security Investigations’ Commercial Fraud Group “never suggested that I needed legal representation and I answered all the questions that he asked,” the Colorado scholar said, according to notes from the conversation.

“Any charges that were leveled against Douglas, right and wrong, should have gone to her as well,” said Cox, one of Latchford’s friends. “She was aware of everything that was going on.”

For friends and family, Bunker’s association with Latchford and her alleged role in his scheme is hard to unwind.

“She wasn’t a criminal sort of person,” said Angus Forsyth, a friend, echoing a phrase by other colleagues and friends.

Harriet Bunker, Emma’s daughter, said she didn’t know about Latchford’s dealings, but “I don’t think she had anything to do with it.”

“If my mother had done something like that we would have known,” she said.

Hiram Woodward, the friend and former Baltimore museum curator, defended Bunker’s scholarship, but acknowledged that she made some “ethical misjudgments.”

“Emmy needs to be strongly admired and respected for what she accomplished,” he said. “At the same time, she had a relationship with Douglas Latchford that has to be regretted.”

For Gordon and the Cambodians, Bunker remains a complicated figure. On her last trip there, three years ago, Bunker gave Gordon a list of names of who had certain pieces for which his team was searching, the attorney said.

He spoke with her again last year, just 10 days before she died. Gordon told her about some of the items that were on their way back to Cambodia.

“She said, ‘I wouldn’t have written the books if I didn’t want that to happen,’” Gordon recalled. “It was like a revision of history.”

Bunker also told friends that she was pushing Latchford to return more pieces to Cambodia.

Her final act, Gordon said, was somewhat redemptive. But Bunker knew the Cambodians were on a worldwide hunt for stolen history, and she only divulged five or 10 names, he said.

“Both her and Douglas did a horrible, horrible crime,” Gordon said. “They muddied the historical record of Cambodia.”

A pedestal of a missing lion statue that Toek Tik looted years ago at Prasat Thom, the main temple of Koh Ker in Cambodia, is seen on Aug. 10, 2022. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)
A pedestal of a missing lion statue that Toek Tik looted years ago at Prasat Thom, the main temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, is seen on Aug. 10, 2022. (Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/Special to The Denver Post)