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Episode 2: Blood Statues

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Speaker 1 (00:00):

Ellen Wong (00:07):
Previously, on Dynamite Doug.

Alexander Goetz (00:09):
Douglas gets offered a masterpiece on the Cambodian-Thai border, so he jumps in the car with his boys and he drives up to the border.

Angela Chiu (00:21):
And it was all very mysterious and odd.

Tess Davis (00:24):
Latchford, I believe, stands alone in that he really plundered this entire civilization.

Ellen Wong (00:36):
Denver, 1971. Emma Bunker sits at a typewriter. She taps out the final words of a short paper. Pre-Angkor Period Bronzes, complete with photos of the most exquisite Buddhist statues. The very statues Douglas Latchford had looted in Thailand and had begun to sell in the US.

Born in 1930 into a prominent New York family, owners of a profitable law practice, Emma, or Emmy to her close friends, had married into the Bunker family, multimillionaire heirs to a sugar fortune.

The couple came to live in Denver, where Emma worked as an art historian.

Lois De Menil (01:20):
She married well, but she wasn’t rags or riches by any means. When she moved to Denver and became involved in the museum, it was a small museum and an ambitious one.

Ellen Wong (01:36):
Emma longed to play a bigger role at the Denver Art Museum, but she had a problem, says Lois de Menil, her friend.

Lois De Menil (01:45):
She had been a student at the Art Institute when she met her husband. She is one of the many who, therefore, never finished her thesis. The world is populated with people who didn’t finish their PhD thesis.

Ellen Wong (02:03):
Without a PhD, Emma wasn’t taken seriously by other art historians. But then Douglas Latchford came into her life, and everything changed.

Last episode, we looked at Douglas’s emergence as a shady dealer in Asian antiquities, but he couldn’t have done it alone. To truly rise to art world dominance, he would need to assemble a crack team, a group of American collaborators, each with a crucial sphere of influence. In this episode, we meet the team, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a Fifth Avenue art dealer across the street from that hallowed institution, and Emma Bunker, an aspiring academic with whom he would become entwined for decades. This is Dynamite Doug, a podcast from Project Brazen and PRX, and I’m Ellen Wong.

Interviewer (03:09):
Would you believe, then, that throughout the six years of your tenure as ambassador, that the government accurately reflected the will of the people of South Vietnam?

Ellsworth Bunker (03:30):
Oh the majority of the people, yes, I think so.

Ellen Wong (03:33):
Emma’s father-in-law, Ellsworth Bunker, was a major political figure in the 1960s and 1970s. American ambassador to South Vietnam, he was a staunch anti-communist and believer in the righteousness of the Vietnam War, which left an estimated 4 million people dead. A few years after the end of the war, he ruminated in an interview on the reasons for failure.

Ellsworth Bunker (03:58):
I think the general feeling is that if you’re going to go to war, you better make up your mind to win it. In a limited war, you tie your own hands.

Ellen Wong (04:07):
In the 1950s, Emma Cadwalader married Ellsworth’s son, John, becoming Emma Bunker. The Bunkers were rich, heirs to the founder of the National Sugar Refining Company in Long Island City, New York. Emma was short, with shoulder-length, curly brown hair, and a prominent jaw. There was a no-nonsense air about her, and she gave off the feeling she did not suffer fools. Emma and her new father-in-law became extremely close, says Dawn Rooney, a friend and art historian specializing in Southeast Asia.

Dawn Rooney (04:41):
Personally, she was a tough person. She spoke often about her father-in-law, and she said that much of her personality in her adult life was formulated around him.

Ellen Wong (04:56):
As for her husband John, he often went to visit his father in Bangkok, an R&R spot during the Vietnam War. And it was through John, says Lois, that Emma got to know Douglas Latchford. Decades later, they would stay in almost daily contact, even from different continents.

Emma Bunker (05:15):
Anything new and exciting?

Douglas Latchford (05:17):
No, everything’s quiet here.

Emma Bunker (05:20):
Well, is that good or not?

Douglas Latchford (05:23):
No news is good news.

Ellen Wong (05:28):
Back home, Emma became a consultant at the Denver Art Museum, and began to publish papers on Chinese art. But she was snubbed by experts. Who was this rich amateur without a PhD?

Lois De Menil (05:39):
Her credentials as a scholar were shaky from her point of view, because though she had written and she knew her stuff, she did not have the PhD, which is the calling card.

Ellen Wong (05:59):
Then out of the blue, Douglas came to the rescue. He told Emma about the Thai bronze statues that he discovered in the jungle, the ones we heard about in the last episode. Douglas gave her exclusive access to all the exciting, new material, supplying photos of the site and the statues. Here was all she needed to jumpstart a mediocre academic career.

Emma’s short paper, published in the Archives of Asian Art, established her name in a new field. Suddenly she was a scholar of Khmer art. It was a connection that gave them both what they wanted. Emma’s paper helped Douglas sell the statues to rich Americans and museums by establishing a scholarly pedigree for the pieces. That’s according to Angela Chiu, a scholar who has written a book on Thai art.

Angela Chiu (06:54):
This is the way the art market works. They need things to have a name, a very brief description, Budhist statues, bronzes from Thailand, and a dating. That’s how pricing is set, right? And that’s what Emma Bunker’s article did.

Ellen Wong (07:10):
Emma was grateful for the boost Douglas gave her career.

Lois De Menil (07:14):
She said, “Oh, Douglas knows all about art, and if I’m really interested in Khmer art, it’s because he’s taught me so much.” And she was grateful for his attention. That was what really struck me enormously.

Ellen Wong (07:30):
The Denver Art Museum even bought some of the bronze statues.

Lois De Menil (07:34):
She did get involved very actively in the Department of Asian Art. She was certainly a key person in their acquisitions and the fact that they were collecting Cambodian art at all, Khmer art. All of that is kind of a shadowy background.

Ellen Wong (07:54):
But Emma didn’t mention Douglas or how he profited from the bronze statues. In Lois’s opinion, Emma never understood Douglas’ true motives.

Lois De Menil (08:04):
She was easy to set up. I think that she was a rich girl, protected, from a fancy family.

Ellen Wong (08:15):
But Lois is mistaken. Emma was no pushover. Her support of Douglas with that 1971 paper was a dynamic that would play out over and over again, and bring Emma and Douglas ever closer together.

Koh Ker, Cambodia, 1974. Many people knew Angkor Wat temples as the backdrop for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, after the filming of which Angelina Jolie adopted her son, Maddox, from a Cambodian orphanage. But for Chen Chanratana, a Cambodian archeologist, the real star is Koh Ker, an older temple complex, 75 miles northeast of Angkor.

Chen Chanratana (09:08):
Koh Ker was built by the kings in 10th century, 200 year before Angkor Wat Temple.

Ellen Wong (09:15):
By 1974, Koh Ker had been taken over by the Khmer Rouge, a vicious band of Mao’s guerillas engaged in a civil war with the US-backed Cambodian government.

Chen Chanratana (09:28):
Koh Ker was closed. Yeah, completely closed and occupied by the Khmer Rouge.

Ellen Wong (09:34):
As the casualties mounted, the Khmer Rouge began to loot statues from the ancient temples of Koh Ker, selling them in Thailand to fund their war machine. A former Cambodian soldier known by his nom de guerre, Blue Tiger, told us about a typical looting operation involving 300 Khmer Rouge and other soldiers.

Blue Tiger (translator) (09:58):
They started at 5:00 PM. They cut the brick a little and we saw the legs come out. They scratched, then saw the body. The items could be carried by two people, they put on a rope, carried them out, dragged them to the field and hid them in the lake.

Ellen Wong (10:18):
The looters were just the first link in a chain. From Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge sold to corrupt local dealers who put items on an oxcart bound for the Thai border a hundred miles away. And from there to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

Blue Tiger (translator) (10:37):
I knew that they delivered to Thailand. Each group sold to different buyers.

Ellen Wong (10:43):
The grunts like Blue Tiger had no choice but to follow orders, and they made little money.

Blue Tiger (translator) (10:52):
I only got enough money to buy food. They only gave me empty promises. They said they would give me 100,000 baht so I could use the money to support my family but I did not get it.

Ellen Wong (11:05):
And the buyer waiting on the other side of the border with the cash, that was often Douglas Latchford. He would make a fortune. In 1974, he dashed off a letter to a dealer at Spink & Son in London about an exciting new find, according to US court documents. He’d just taken delivery of a female torso from Koh Ker, as well as a statue of a Hindu God known as Harihara. The Spink dealer was nervous. These pieces, blood statues you might call them, were coming out of a war zone. The dealer called Douglas and then wrote to a colleague. They needed to concoct “legitimate” export documents for the loot.

We got an actor to read the letter.

Spink Dealer (actor) (11:52):
I’ve explored extensively with Latchford how to get legitimate papers for the large Koh Ker guardian and for all subsequent shipments.

Ellen Wong (12:03):
It wasn’t just the connection to the Khmer Rouge that was a problem. In 1970, UNESCO, a United Nations agency had adopted an international treaty to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property. Countries that signed up to the treaty agreed to abide by local laws that prohibited the export of artifacts without licenses. Newly independent nations were flexing their muscles after years of looting by colonialists. Of course, the new UNESCO rules weren’t easily enforceable. Still, Western museums began to refuse artifacts without documentation proving acquisition before 1970, the year the UNESCO treaty was adopted.

Back in London in 1974, the Spink dealer explained to his colleague how Douglas should create fake export documents for the statues, making them seem like they had been excavated before 1970. Then the dealer wrote Douglas reminding him of the importance of these bogus papers.

Spink Dealer (actor) (13:09):
This is especially important for any future sale to the USA.

Ellen Wong (13:15):
Douglas worked with a Thai dealer to create false papers. Now armed with fake documents, Spink went looking for a home for the Harihara, a rare piece for which the auction house paid Douglas $300,000 or $1.8 million in today’s money. Three years later, the dealer sold a statue matching the description of the Harihara to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, bringing a new collaborator into Douglas’s fold.

Meet Martin Lerner, the Met’s ambitious young curator.

Brad Gordon (13:55):
Martin Lerner, he was at the Met for 30 years and he was the chief curator of the Southeast Asian section. He started there around ’72. He retired in 2003. And what happened during those 30 years is probably one of the greatest collections of Cambodian antiquities ever ended up at the Met. And so much of this went through Latchford, so much.

Ellen Wong (14:25):
Brad Gordon, an American lawyer who is currently consulting for the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to get statues back from the Met and other museums sees Martin Lerner as a key in Douglas’s network.

Brad Gordon (14:38):
So Martin Lerner, he played a critical role in Douglas Latchford building up success and building up an empire, I would say, as the preeminent dealer of Khmer antiquities. Douglas, what he was doing over time and his MO was to put statues into museums on loan or to sell them to museums and use the museums as laundromats to clean these statues.

Ellen Wong (15:24):
New York, 1972. Just as Koh Ker was being looted, Martin Lerner was moving with his young family to take up a prestigious assignment, Vice Chair of Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Coming from the Cleveland Museum, this was a step up in the world. Founded in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue houses some 2 million antiquities from all over the globe.

Born into a middle class family in Brooklyn, Martin had high cheekbones with bright blue eyes and for most of his adult life, a beard. He liked to dress in loose fitting shirts and blazers. Martin had studied in the 1960s at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where Emma Bunker was a classmate. While he’d completed his PhD in art history with a specialty in Asian ceramics, she’d dropped out. And for Emma, something about their diverging paths began to sting. As Martin climbed, first to Cleveland Museum of Art and then the Met, Emma thought his rise was unwarranted, Lois remembers.

Lois De Menil (16:38):
She didn’t like him. She didn’t have a great deal of respect for him.

Ellen Wong (16:42):
In 1968, Martin made his first trip to Thailand where he likely met Douglas, the same time that Emma also was getting to know him. Just as Emma needed Douglas for her academic career, he offered Martin a way to build a new collection, the quickest path to success for a curator. At that juncture, the Met had little Khmer art. A few years after Martin joined the Met the museum bought a Harihara statue, almost certainly the same piece for which Spink and Douglas had concocted those fake papers. Same religious figure, same dealer, Spink, of course, same period, same area of Cambodia. It was paid for by a donation from the Rockefeller family. The acquisition was a coup for Martin Lerner. Growing in his new role, Martin was ambitious and sometimes abrasive, remembers Helen Jessup, the scholar of Southeast Asian art. Once she was organizing an exhibition in Washington and wanted the Met to loan a Rama statue.

Helen Jessup (17:56):
The Met refused to lend it. I was pretty upset. There was never really a reason. They just said, “No,” we refused the loan. So that’s when I got to know Lerner a little bit.

Ellen Wong (18:10):
As he built The Met’s collection, Martin had to be careful, especially because of the new UNESCO convention. The Met had set new rules for collecting, requiring curators to fact check documents with countries of origin. Alex Goetz, the Asia-based antiques dealer and friend of Douglas, whom we met last episode, says that initially the UNESCO Treaty was ignored.

Alexander Goetz (18:37):
The art world was talking about it, but there were no repercussions. Nothing changed. “Do you have an export license or do you have a provenance?” never came up. They talk about it, but they don’t use it if you show them something really nice.

Ellen Wong (18:56):
Still, the UNESCO convention did make Douglas’s job more difficult, selling artifacts without proof. They’d already been circulating. Pre 1970 became harder, says Jessica Feinstein, a prosecutor with the Southern District of New York who has investigated Douglas Latchford.

Jessica Feinstein (19:13):
If you think about 1970 and the UNESCO Treaty as sort of a historical marker, you can see Latchford’s historical letters among the people he was working with, trying to figure out how to smuggle objects out of Cambodia, out of Bangkok, and conceal from customs officials and the like. What they’re actually doing, and their focus is on the US art market. We need good provenance for the US art market. And that was happening in the ’70s

Ellen Wong (19:44):
From 1970 on Douglass and his American enablers would have to cover their tracks. There’s no evidence. Martin knew the papers from the Harihara statue had been faked, or that he made a personal financial gain from the sale, but he also appears to have made little effort to follow The Met’s rules about checking provenances with Cambodia.

Martin didn’t respond to our detailed questions. He told the New York Times in 2013 that there was no government in Cambodia at the time, and so due diligence was impossible, but there was a government in charge of Cambodia. By 1977, when The Met took delivery of the Harihara statue, the Khmer Rouge had taken over Cambodia. At least 2 million people died in those years, almost a quarter of the population as a murderous regime attempted to take the country back to a Stone Age agricultural utopia, year zero.

In response to detailed questions about the events laid out in this podcast, the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave us this statement. Quote, “The Met is committed to the responsible collecting of antiquities, and with that comes an obligation to research provenance and to be transparent about what ownership history an object has, and to display that on the museum’s website, The museum is a leader in the field in comprehensively reviewing individual matters, and it has returned many pieces based upon thorough review, oftentimes in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts.” Unquote. The Harihara however, remains in the museum’s collection until this day.

In tapes for a 2014 documentary, Douglas recited a line you’ll often hear from defenders of Western Museums. If the pieces hadn’t been looted and stored in foreign collections, they’d have been destroyed by negligent local populations. In this case, the Khmer Rouge.

Douglas Latchford (21:59):
Well, I think people who collected in that time certainly contributed towards saving pieces. And during the Khmer Rouge period and prior, and subsequent to that, the Vietnamese occupation, it was uncertain what was happening to these pieces if they were left in situ or in Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (22:23):
In reality, the Khmer Rouge looted to raise funds for their war machine, and collectors like Douglas found Western customers willing to pay handsomely, says Tess Davis, an archeologist and lawyer. Generals like Ta Mok, known as “The Butcher,” played a personal role in the removal of statues.

Tess Davis (22:44):
The damage to the ancient heritage by looting far outstrips that done by the armed conflict. These pieces, in some cases were safe in Cambodia for a millennia and then disappeared in a matter of years, hacked off at the ankles and broken into pieces. I talked to a former looter, and he himself said, “Money did this.” As long as people are willing to buy something, people will find a supply.

Ellen Wong (23:24):
Like Douglas, Martin Lerner played up the positive impact he thought he was having. In an article in 2000, he argued that Cambodian farmers who dug up artifacts, sold them to feed their families, but neither man acknowledged that these blood statues had made their careers. Douglas was minting money and Martin, he was garnering prestige in the museum world. Both were helping to power a larger and very lucrative machine.

Tess Davis (23:56):
For Latchford to do what he did, for Latchford to commit these crimes, it involved the complicity of countless individuals, shippers, conservators, dealers, curators, art historians, the list goes on and on.

Ellen Wong (24:15):
Each step to a stolen work of art. Winding up in a museum is carefully choreographed, washing away the fact at every stop, that the art was stolen.

Tess Davis (24:25):
For a collector to have a piece exhibited in a major museum that adds prestige to that piece, it serves as a pedigree, it can increase its value, and it also can shoo away questions in the future. Other buyers may assume that that museum would’ve done its homework, you know, nothing to see here. And of course, the museum benefits from having the piece. So there’s a lot of reasons for people to look the other way. But we know that Latchford not just trafficked pieces, laundered them through display and some of our most prestigious museums.

Ellen Wong (25:11):
But museums don’t typically buy directly from figures like Douglas, especially in the new atmosphere after 1970. So they looked for intermediaries like Spink & Son, but there were others too, including an American, Doris Wiener. Doris was an up and coming dealer with a gallery on Fifth Avenue right across the street from the Met. Then, in her late 40s, with short cropped black hair with a wavy fringe, Doris began her career in Greenwich Village. She and her husband, a jewelry designer, had fashion pins from twisted wire. They traveled to India and Southeast Asia where Doris acquired statues for cheap. It was the 1950s, a lawless time, remembers Alex Goetz the dealer, and Doris built up quite a collection.

Alexander Goetz (26:07):
Doris in the ’50s and ’60s, she bought Chola bronzes in India by the kilo. So her stock of Chola bronzes was impeccable, incredible stuff.

Ellen Wong (26:21):
Then she met Douglas, who was eight years younger and just building his own collection in Thailand. He was amazed by Doris’s collection and they began to trade.

Alexander Goetz (26:32):
He got from her, some great pieces.

Ellen Wong (26:35):
Doris’s star rose. In the 1960s, she moved uptown to a gallery on Madison, and then later to the one across from The Met. Douglas was jealous.

Alexander Goetz (26:46):
She is the old fox and he’s the old fox, and they’re biting each other’s ankle, but they love each other because they talk the same language.

Ellen Wong (26:56):
Alex is wistful that even though he started dealing in Asian art in the seventies. He missed out on the golden age.

Alexander Goetz (27:04):
They were the old guard. I was a spring chicken in there. Even though I’m 74 now, I was still considered the spring chicken. I came on the market about 15 years late.

Ellen Wong (27:16):
Alex did become a dealer for Douglas.

Alexander Goetz (27:19):
But dealers, he felt extremely comfortable, me, Spink and Doris Wiener.

Ellen Wong (27:31):
Doris also knew Martin Lerner. She donated a 19th century Indian silk jacket to the Cleveland Museum of Art when Martin was still a curator there. In 1972, Doris sold her first Khmer piece to the Met, an 11th century bronze, the same year that Martin started at the museum. We don’t know for sure how Doris acquired the bronze, but what we do know is that under Martin Lerner, the Met would come to hold more looted Cambodian treasures connected to Douglas than any other museum.

If you visited the Met Southeast Asian Wing a decade ago, you would’ve seen two life size kneeling attendants guarding a doorway. These stone sculptures, their arms crossed, were a favorite of the museum and a capstone to Martin Lerner’s successful run at the Met. He’d built a huge collection of Khmer art leading to the opening of the Southeast Asian wing in 1994. A major expansion for the Met and a triumph for Martin. But the kneeling attendants, like much else in the gallery, were stolen. They arrived at the museum piece by piece, beginning with a head donated by Spink and Douglas in 1987. A plaque on the wall said the guardians had been given in honor of Martin Lerner. An interviewer for the 2014 documentary asked Douglas about the donation.

Douglas Latchford (29:08):
That’s right. Spinks had, as far as I recollect … I mean this is going back a long time. They had several body parts, a head, an arm, a leg, and they wanted to donate it to Martin Lerner at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. And they asked me if I would contribute finances towards putting them together and donating them to Martin Lerner.

Ellen Wong (29:38):
By making a donation to the Met, one of the world’s premier museums, Douglas was ensuring the value of Khmer art would rise. The fact the pieces came broken up, should have caused alarm, the interviewer suggests. That’s how looters work. They cut up statues and temples, but Douglas points the finger at another invading force.

Douglas Latchford (29:59):
Heads were not necessarily cut off. When a statue fell or was pushed over by invaders in the 14th, 15th century, as they fell forward, they would break at three points, the neck, the elbows, and the feet, the ankles. So it could well have been in the 14th, 15th century when Cambodia was raided by neighboring countries that that piece and other pieces were pushed over because they were Hindu and the raiders were Buddhist, so therefore they attacked the sculpture.

Ellen Wong (30:42):
Martin Lerner later told the New York Times he couldn’t remember what research the Met had done on the origin of the statues. The Met unveiled its Southeast Asian wing, and the kneeling attendants were pieced back together by museum conservators. No one cared about the looting of Cambodia, and the thieves were only getting started. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed temples, but the country emerging from decades of violence was about to be plundered like never before.

Coming up next on Dynamite Doug

Jason Felch (31:23):
It was as unclear where those questions would lead, but they would not lead in a good place.

Phoeurng Sackona (31:29):
How did they get it? How this statue can go from Cambodia to U.S. or to another country. How?

Emma Bunker (31:38):
I mean, the whole collective world, whole art world has gone sort of crazy.

Ellen Wong (31:52):
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. Mari√°ngel 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 Ellison, 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 Lily and Richard Trapp. If you liked this episode, please be sure to tell a friend or write and review it wherever you listen.