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Episode 4: Art Sleuths

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Speaker 1 (00:00):

Ellen Wong (00:06):
Previously on Dynamite Doug.

Jason Felch (00:09):
If this object was stolen, what else might be stolen that we have?

Helen Jessup (00:13):
I don’t see her as a deliberate international art criminal, not at all. But she colluded.

Phoeurng Sackona (00:21):
How this statue can go from Cambodia to US or to another country? How?

Ellen Wong (00:37):
Koh Ker, 2007.

Simon Warrack (00:39):
My name is Simon Warrack and I am British and Italian nationality now. I live in Italy and have done for 30 years, and I’ve worked all my life as a stone conservator.

Ellen Wong (00:56):
Simon Warrack has a mop of gray hair and a job working to preserve ancient stone buildings. He started on medieval churches, and by 2007 could often be seen traipsing through jungle temples in Cambodia. In a linen shirt and a wide brimmed hat, a sort of British Indiana Jones.

Simon Warrack (01:18):
I was visiting a number of temples in this very large site called Koh Ker. Koh Ker was the capital of the Angkorian empire for a short period under one of the kings, Jayavarman IV. And he built an extraordinary site that consists of a giant pyramid that looks like the Mexican pyramid. I was wandering around and as stone people do, was looking at every crack and fragment and taking hundreds of pictures when I came across two sets of feet sticking out of the forest floor.

Ellen Wong (01:57):
Two stone feet without a statue attached. Simon didn’t think too much of it at the time. He was just taking photos, documenting another lost Khmer temple.

Simon Warrack (02:08):
About several weeks later, I was in the library of the École Francais, which is based in Paris. And I was looking through some of the books and actually just to see what Koh Ker sculpture looked like when I came across what turned out to be the Latchford book.

Ellen Wong (02:25):
That’s right, Adoration and Glory. The same book written by Emma Bunker and Douglas Latchford.

Simon Warrack (02:32):
They’re wonderful. They’re some of the finest sculptures you can see.

Ellen Wong (02:35):
As Simon turned the page, he was hit by a bolt of recognition. There was a glossy picture of a life-size stone figure. Five feet tall, 500 pounds, legs akimbo like a wrestler ready to grapple an opponent.

Simon Warrack (02:51):
And lo and behold, there was a great big sculpture with no feet. Well, lots of sculptures have no feet. But I thought, well, that looks quite similar.

Ellen Wong (03:02):
Simon scanned the photo of the sculpture on his computer and overlaid it with his own photo of the feet from Koh Ker.

Simon Warrack (03:10):
I literally photoshopped them together, it wasn’t exactly high-tech. And by incredible good fortune, I’d taken the photograph from the same angle and it fitted and it was very obviously the feet of that sculpture.

Ellen Wong (03:30):
Simon was intrigued. He looked at the book. The statue, identified as a temple wrestler, was sitting in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. He then realized it must have been stolen, hacked off by looters. He wrote a two-page report, which he sent to the Cambodian government and the UN.

Simon Warrack (03:52):
I certainly didn’t imagine that it would have this domino effect. This butterfly, the butterfly flapping its wing and suddenly all these other things happening.

Ellen Wong (04:05):
This is Dynamite Doug, a podcast from Project Brazen and PRX. And I’m Ellen Wong.

He didn’t know it, but Simon’s lucky break set in motion a series of events that would finally bring some serious scrutiny to Douglas and Emma. Denver, 2007. As Simon pieced together his clues, Emma Bunker, now 77 years old, was enjoying her new power in the art world. After her book with Douglas came out, Emma became well known in the field of Khmer studies, often called on to give public lectures. In her talks, Emma assumed a woman of the world persona; comfortable discussing sex and giving the impression she enjoyed a good time. Here she is discussing apsaras, the nymphs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Emma Bunker (05:15):
Apsaras are really a product of the Cambodian Tourist Association with the apsara dance at every hotel you go to. And I think there weren’t a lot of great apsaras in the Khmer empire, but they certainly make good entertainment at cocktail hour in Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (05:35):
And then she veers off in to talk about tantric sex.

Emma Bunker (05:40):
I think westerners always a little startled that in some facets of tantric Buddhism, copulation and the consummation of the sexual act has some interpretation on achieving oneness with God, the ecstasy of it all.

Ellen Wong (06:02):
In private, Emma was also growing evermore pleased with the power bestowed by Douglas. She wasn’t just called on for public lectures. Behind the scenes, she was playing an important role in Douglas’s ecosystem. When a new employee joined the auction house Sotheby’s as a vice president of Southeast Asian art in New York, Emma emailed Douglas about how they needed to ensure her evaluations of art were to their liking. That is, on the pricey side. Here’s an actor reading her email.

Emma Bunker (actor) (06:37):
I know we have said it again and again, these pieces are so rare, et cetera, that they cannot be evaluated by some little auction chicky-poo who got promoted from clerk recently. What I am proposing is to educate her, program her mind, and make her our own creature. Then she can be controlled.

Ellen Wong (07:00):
Emma jokes that a well-known architect in New York who worked on apartments of Douglas’ clients should seduce the Sotheby’s executive. “A light kiss on the back of the neck, a hand brushed here and there, and a little more verbal charm, and you’ve got her,” she wrote. Then Emma makes a startling admission to Douglas. He had controlled her, so now they should work together to control the Sotheby’s executive.

Emma Bunker (actor) (07:32):
You were very successful with me, but lucky for you I’m smart, good company, never boring, seldom screw up and always do as I’m told, with a few micro exceptions. Tee-hee. Anyway, I fear if she gets demoted we could get someone much worse. And she’s fun enough and perhaps fixable.

Ellen Wong (07:55):
The evidence we have, based on Douglas’ emails, is that Emma by this point is all in. Another email is even more damning. Emma writes to Douglas that she’s just found a bunch of old letterheads for Spink and Son, and other auction houses. She suggests they could use them to write fake provenances for artifacts. That is, pretending items had been sold years ago before the 1970 UNESCO cutoff date. When in fact they had been acquired more recently.

Emma Bunker (actor) (08:28):
Went through all the old files in the Denver apartment and found all sorts of letterhead. I think we could be in business for quite a while and sell anything you want at auction.

Ellen Wong (08:39):
She signs off.

Emma Bunker (actor) (08:41):
What a giant hoot. Giggles and more giggles.

Ellen Wong (08:45):
This is a tipping point in our story. Emma’s no longer simply writing academic articles, helping legitimize Douglas. She’s conspiring to break international law by falsifying provenance documents, enabling Douglas to illegally sell looted Khmer statues to rich people and museums.

Nancy Wiener, the dealer who by now had taken over her mother Doris’s New York art dealership, claimed Douglas told her he gave bronze statues to Emma in return for false provenances according to US court documents. But Emma had been wealthy and privileged from the very start, so why take such a deep plunge into this whole operation? Was it simply greed? Maybe she was addicted to the power? Or perhaps she was in love. Her husband John had died in 2005, and Douglas, as she acknowledged herself only half jokingly, had come to control her. Douglas even signed his emails to her as bong, a Khmer honorific that he used to refer to himself. When they talked on the phone, even about something as simple as travel arrangements to see him in Bangkok, Emma sounded deferential.

Emma Bunker (10:07):
But I’m still sort of planning to come sort of sometime early in October. I’m just waiting to see-

Douglas Latchford (10:14):
Will you go to Phnom Penh first or come here first?

Emma Bunker (10:18):
I’ll go to Hong Kong and then Phnom Penh and there, is that okay?

Douglas Latchford (10:23):
Yes, that’s fine.

Ellen Wong (10:25):
Even until today with all that’s happened, few in the art world know the extent of Emma’s involvement with Douglas. They think her wrongdoing, if anything, extends only to writing academic articles.

Dawn Rooney (10:40):
I don’t know how much he told her. It’s just very hard to read that. Because she simply denied any accusations against him. She said they’re simply not true.

Ellen Wong (10:53):
Dawn Rooney, the scholar, was close to her. But she’s still unsure about whether Emma knew Douglas was corrupt.

Dawn Rooney (11:01):
I mean, I knew her as well as anyone personally, in the art world at least, and I can’t read that.

Ellen Wong (11:19):
New York, 2010. It was three years after Simon Warrack, the stone conservator, had written his report on the Koh Ker statue, the temple wrestler. Nothing had really changed. Douglas returned a few lesser statues, but the Cambodian government had no idea how to take on a powerful museum like the Norton Simon in Pasadena. And then…

Simon Warrack (11:45):
Gradually, very gradually things started to move. Actually, things really only moved when the second pair of feet turned out to have an accompanying body. Because a sculpture came up for sale at Sotheby’s and it turned out to be the body to the other pair of feet.

Ellen Wong (12:08):
The statue Simon had identified in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena turned out to be one of a Hindu God called Bhima, not a temple wrestler. And it was one of a pair of statues that had once stood in the Koh Ker Temple complex. The other statue of the Hindu God, Duryodhana, had also been ripped out by looters, leaving its feet in situ. Like Simon, French archeologist Eric Bourdonneau had identified the piece by comparing the feet to a photo of the statue. It just so happened that this statue was on the block for auction at Sotheby’s. And Emma Bunker had been called in to write the catalog entry, says Lois De Menil, her friend.

Lois De Menil (12:54):
There was a point at which there was going to be that big auction at Sotheby’s. I got a telephone call from Emmy and she had been contacted by Sotheby’s, who wanted her to give an expertise. So she said, “Well, what do you think?” And I could tell she was kind of upset and ruffled by it. Both tempted because they were treating her as a scholar and then on the other hand, scared.

Ellen Wong (13:33):
Sotheby’s had come to Emma and Douglas to help trace the provenance of the statue. Amid the heightened scrutiny, the auction house was worried it might have been stolen. And Emma and Douglas had a problem. Back in the early 1970s, Douglas had acquired the Duryodhana and Bhima statues from looters and then conspired with representatives of Spink and Son, the London Auction House, to falsify export licenses for them.

In 1975, Spink sold the Duryodhana statue to a Belgian businessman whose widow was now looking to sell. In an email, Emma told the Sotheby’s executive that Cambodia’s government had been made aware that the statue’s feet were still in situ in Koh Ker. Evidence it had been looted. She urged Sotheby’s to be careful, perhaps not mentioning the feet in its catalog. The Duryodhana was the star piece of Sotheby’s upcoming sale, expected to fetch up to $3 million. The auction house looked for ways to proceed. One Sotheby’s executive wrote in an email that they could get Douglas to say he’d owned the statue in the 1960s before the UNESCO rules came in. A provenance that many buyers demanded. Douglas at first told Sotheby’s he had the Duryodhana in London in 1970, but then Emma in an email advised him to deny any involvement at all with the statues.

Emma Bunker (actor) (15:14):
I think maybe you shouldn’t be known to have been associated with the Koh Ker guardian figures. Let’s just fudge a little and just put the blame squarely on Spink.

Ellen Wong (15:26):
Douglas heeded this advice, changing his story and falsely telling Sotheby’s he’d never owned the Duryodhana. A claim he repeated in tapes for the 2014 documentary.

Douglas Latchford (15:39):
I don’t know where they imagined that I owned the piece, but let me confirm to you first that I did not own the piece and I did not sell it to Spink. There is evidence to that effect to prove that.

Ellen Wong (16:00):
This is not true, according to a 2019 criminal indictment of Douglas. And Emma was caught up in helping push these falsehoods. Sotheby’s now didn’t have the pre 1970 provenance to facilitate a sale. Despite this, the auction house pushed on.

Helen Jessup (16:23):
Well, it was quite a walk, and I had never been anywhere beyond the sort of public bits of that Sotheby’s establishment.

Ellen Wong (16:34):
Helen Jessup, the scholar of Southeast Asian art, had been invited to look at the statue at Sotheby’s on New York’s Upper East Side.

Helen Jessup (16:43):
And we went through a huge room where everything conceivable under the sun was coming up for some kind of auction in the future, must have been thousands of objects. We walked through that and walked into a separate room where the Duryodhana was standing alone. My jaw metaphorically dropped when I saw it. And I walked around and I thought, “Oh my God, where did this come from?”

Ellen Wong (17:12):
Helen was shocked that such a priceless piece of Cambodian heritage was on the auction block.

Helen Jessup (17:18):
So I was really flabbergasted. And I got home and I telephoned Hab Touch.

Ellen Wong (17:31):
Hab Touch is a senior official in Cambodia’s culture ministry.

Helen Jessup (17:35):
So I telephoned him and said, “There’s a very important piece coming up at Sotheby’s, and I think you should intervene.”

Ellen Wong (17:43):
At the 11th hour, the Cambodian government stepped in writing to Sotheby’s to demand the cancellation of the auction and the return of the statue. Initially, Sotheby’s was defiant, refusing to hand the statue back to Cambodia, saying there were no legal grounds for the claim. But under pressure, it did withdraw the Duryodhana from auction.

In a statement to us, Sotheby’s said it had told the Cambodian government of the sale but had received no reply. When finally contacted by the Cambodian government, Sotheby’s said it, quote, “Promptly withdrew the piece from auction,” unquote. Sotheby’s further pointed out, the US government later cleared the auction house of wrongdoing. And it said Emma Bunker later changed her mind, saying the statue had been acquired legally and could be sold. Meanwhile, at the urging of Helen, Hab Touch had gotten in touch with a special agent at the Department of Homeland Security. The US government was now on the case.

Jessica Feinstein (19:03):
We historically have done quite a few cultural patrimony cases. We’ve returned objects to Peru, to Italy, to Mongolia. Those are usually dinosaur bones.

Ellen Wong (19:14):
Jessica Feinstein is co-chief of a money laundering unit in the southern district of New York in Manhattan. Her office handles civil and criminal cases involving art theft, building on investigations carried out by the Department of Homeland Security.

Jessica Feinstein (19:30):
We learned about an object that was going up for auction in 2011 at Sotheby’s Auction House. And it was a Khmer stone antiquity, monumental in size, called the Duryodhana. I believe we were approached by the Cambodians who had noticed it in the auction catalog and were concerned that it had been stolen from Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (19:57):
Sotheby’s had canceled the auction, but still refused to give the piece back. So the Cambodians asked Jessica’s office to seize the piece and return it.

Jessica Feinstein (20:09):
We ultimately ended up filing what’s called a civil forfeiture action. It’s not a criminal process, and what happened was Sotheby’s the auction house initially engaged us in litigation over whether the United States would’ve been able to take title to the piece, and then return it ultimately to Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (20:29):
Sotheby’s was claiming the statue was rightly owned by the widow of the Belgian industrialist. The auction house’s decision to fight the US government in court was terrible for Douglas.

Jessica Feinstein (20:40):
So through the civil discovery process, we were able to gather evidence documents from Sotheby’s as well as other places. So Sotheby’s went to Douglas Latchford and asked him, essentially, “When did this piece come out of Cambodia? What can you tell us about that?” And what we were able to see is that he lied to Sotheby’s. He said that he had it in London in 1970, and in fact we know it came out from Koh Ker in 1972.

Ellen Wong (21:11):
When the civil suit became public, Douglas, identified in court papers as the collector, was named in the international media. Seeking to limit the damage, he gave an interview to the New York Times in which he again denied owning the statue. “If the French and other western collectors had not preserved this art, what would be the understanding of Khmer culture today?” he said. This old colonialist line was wearing pretty thin. Douglas also sat for an interview with the documentary team in which he derided the US investigators.

Douglas Latchford (21:49):
Their imagination has gone wild. They’ve seen too many Indiana Jones films. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a smuggling network, and I certainly don’t belong to any smuggling network.

Interviewer (22:04):
It’s a crime to steal a statue from temple, or…

Douglas Latchford (22:10):
It depends whether it was stolen from a temple or whether it was in a private collection prior to that. I don’t know.

Ellen Wong (22:21):
And he pretended to have changed from his 1950s self.

Douglas Latchford (22:26):
I would be much more cautious if I found something in a shop in Thailand or in Christie’s or in London or in New York, wherever, that I would make much more certain that the piece had not been stolen.

Ellen Wong (22:47):
This was supposed to be a PR offensive to combat the US allegations, but the interviewer keeps pressing Douglas. Eventually his PR team steps in.

Interviewer (22:58):
Yeah, as you like it. Okay.

Douglas Latchford (23:01):
No, I’ll answer. I have nothing to hide.

Ellen Wong (23:05):
The genie was out of the bottle. But Douglas, now in his early eighties, had no intention of changing. Even after the Sotheby’s debacle he continued to sell looted statues, as we’ll hear in the next episode. But after decades of getting away with it, Douglas Latchford finally was on US law enforcement’s radar.

Jessica Feinstein (23:32):
So through the civil process, that was our first window into Douglas Latchford and his dealings.

Ellen Wong (23:41):
The US government was fighting Sotheby’s in court over the statue, but prosecutors were starting to focus on Douglas. Soon, this would no longer be simply a civil matter.

Jessica Feinstein (23:56):
So we began a criminal investigation into Douglas Latchford as a result of that case.

Ellen Wong (24:09):
Coming up on Dynamite Doug.

Sharon Cohen Levin (24:12):
We were just fortunate that actually people involved in the looting network were still alive and willing to speak with us.

Douglas Latchford (24:19):
I think those pieces probably will circulate again.

Alexander Goetz (24:23):
He made one mistake.

Phoeurng Sackona (24:26):
This will start, from my thinking, how Cambodia can get back the statue to our country.

Ellen Wong (24:38):
Dynamite Doug is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s hosted by me, Ellen Wong. Tom Wright and Bradley Hope are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Tom Wright wrote the script. With reporting from Timothy McLaughlin and Evan Moffitt. Joanne Levine is the story editor. Mariángel Gonzalez and Nicholas Brennan are senior producers. Matthew Rubenstein is the producer. Mix and Music by Bang Music and Audio Post. Theme by Paul Vitolins. Underscore by Timo Elliston, Brian Jones and Paul Vitolins. Lucy Woods is Head of Research. Ryan Ho is the creative director for the project. With Cover Art designed by Julien Pradier. The production coordinator for Audiation is Selena Seay Reynolds. Voice Actors are Sok Sambath, Jeremiah Putnam, Lois Allen Lilly, and Richard Trapp. If you like this episode, please be sure to tell a friend. Or write and review it wherever you listen.