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Episode 6: "Curiosity Killed the Cat"

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Speaker 1 (00:00):


Ellen Wong (00:06):

Previously on Dynamite Doug.

Sharon Cohen Levin (00:09):

We were just fortunate that people involved in the looting network were still alive and willing to speak with us.

Douglas Latchford (00:15):

It’s a good day for Cambodia. It’s a bad day for the art market.

Phoeurng Sackona (00:18):

I’m feeling like a spirit come back.

Ellen Wong (00:28):

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2019. Aged 89, Emma Bunker, nearing the end of her life, walked up to Cambodia’s National Museum, built in the Khmer style with steep pitched roofs. Shooing away her entourage, Emma greeted Brad Gordon, the American lawyer, who by now was working with Culture Minister Sackona and the Cambodian government on the return of the nation’s stolen heritage.

Brad Gordon (00:56):

She photographed many of the pieces or she went to the houses when they were being photographed, so she had enormous knowledge of where all these statues were.

Ellen Wong (01:06):

The pair moved inside past the kneeling attendance, returned six years prior from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where they’d stood guard to Martin Lerner’s Southeast Asian collection. The Cambodian museum was closed, quiet, and eerie as they passed two other statues, the Koh Ker guardian figures, which had come back from Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon Museum. Despite the handful of returns, Brad still needed more information. Sitting under the statues, he asked for Emma’s help.

Brad Gordon (01:41):

She liked the idea that she was part of this huge drama and that she had a role in it. It was like a spy movie. We’re sitting alone in the shadows of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, and she’s giving me secret information about where all these statues are.

Ellen Wong (01:58):

By Brad’s count. There are more than 700 pieces in books by Emma and Douglas, many of them still in museums and private collections around the world.

Brad Gordon (02:08):

So I think that her engagement with Douglas and what she did, she’s guilty of a horrendous crime. This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest art heist in history.

Ellen Wong (02:23):

This is Dynamite Doug from Project Brazen and PRX, and I’m Ellen Wong. In this our final episode, Emma faces up to what she’s done as Douglas is finally brought down and Cambodia begins the gargantuan task of bringing its art back home. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum fights to cling onto its collection, a struggle that’s still raging. After the dealer, Nancy Wiener was arrested, as we heard last episode, the spotlight fell on Douglas and Emma. Journalists figured out they were the unindicted co-conspirators in court documents. The New York Times even published a major piece about Douglas and Emma’s partnership. It was getting too much for Emma. Perhaps she needed to save her own skin. In June 2018, she dashed off an email to Douglas. We had an actor read it.

Emma Bunker (actor) (03:36):

I am really furious as I am being subtly connected with a whole bloody mess with which I was never connected. This is never going to go away and will haunt everyone until it is resolved. This is a tragedy for you and your 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, as I care for you and your family, but none of all this is any longer acceptable.

Ellen Wong (04:09):

By now, Emma was cooperating with the Justice Department, scared that after Nancy Wiener, she would be next, and Douglas knew it. In one email about Emma whom he derisively started calling, Big mama, Douglas wrote, “She’s highly dangerous and capable of saying anything.”

Brad Gordon (04:32):

You can also see the way Douglas ridiculed her behind her back and insulted her. He was not a good guy. He was not. He’s really not someone you want as a friend because he just would stab you in the back if he had a chance.

Ellen Wong (04:52):

Growing distrustful of Emma Douglas began recording their phone calls and his tone hardened.

Douglas Latchford (05:01):

I got your email. Why are people interfering and coming to inform you that I sold some bronzes?

Emma Bunker (05:09):

I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find out any further.

Douglas Latchford (05:13):

They don’t know, so they shouldn’t interfere.

Emma Bunker (05:17):

Why? They were just curious as to where they were now? That’s all.

Douglas Latchford (05:22):

Curiosity killed the cat.

Ellen Wong (05:28):

Brad Gordon had advised the US Justice Department in the Sotheby’s case. By the time he met Emma in 2019, he was working for Cambodian Culture Minister Sackona, drawing up a list of all the arts stolen from the country over half a century. By now, Douglas aged 87 was in failing health in and out of the hospital, suffering from Parkinson’s. Sackona had turned down a deal with Douglas years before, but now she wanted to get the statues back before he died, taking his knowledge of decades worth of stolen treasures to his grave. Now she was ready to deal.

Phoeurng Sackona (06:11):

Maybe according to our philosophy, our Buddhism, we can maybe forgive.

Ellen Wong (06:20):

On behalf of Cambodia. Brad started secret negotiations with Douglas’s daughter, Julia Latchford, who’s also known as Nawapan Kriangsak and lives in Abu Dhabi.

Brad Gordon (06:32):

We managed to keep it out of the news and we had a number of meetings in Bangkok. I went to the Middle East to meet family members and we continued to have these discussions.

Ellen Wong (06:44):

Due to his poor health. Douglas didn’t take part in discussions for months. Then out of the blue, he got in touch with Brad.

Brad Gordon (06:54):

He called me one time and he said, “I’m back from the dead.” And we had this discussion about how important it was to return all this to Cambodians and he said, “Yeah, yeah, I agree. I agree.” And he was very charming and very likable, and he made me laugh.

Ellen Wong (07:08):

Douglas told Brad he wanted immunity in the US from prosecution for him and his family in return for giving his collection back to Cambodia, over a hundred pieces in his homes in London and Bangkok, as well as storage facilities in Hong Kong and the US. Brad floated the idea with the US Embassy. Here’s William Heidt, then us ambassador to Cambodia.

William Heidt (07:33):

Latchford became more open too as he got older. He wanted to make sure that his daughter and other people that he had collaborated with wouldn’t be prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office in New York.

Ellen Wong (07:45):

But it was too late. The Justice Department had been investigating him now for years and Douglas, well, he was never going to stop looting anyway, even as he negotiated with Brad.

Brad Gordon (07:59):

I realized later on, I look at all the emails, I say, “He’s like trying to sell statues every day, right up until he went to the hospital.”

Ellen Wong (08:08):

“Collecting is sort of a disease, really,” a Hong Kong base collector and friend of Douglas told the Washington Post in 2021, and Douglas wasn’t cured. In June 2019, he sent an email to Martin Lerner about a statue recently dug up in Thailand, still encrusted in dirt. The same month he sold 820,000 US dollars worth of statues to a businessman in Thailand, but Douglas was near the end of his life. He wrote to a friend, an academic in London. We had an actor read this.

Douglas Latchford (actor) (08:48):

I miss not sitting and exchanging views on new discoveries just to talk with someone who appreciates the art and is unbiased one way or the other. My malady is progressing quite rapidly now. I am now unable to walk without help. Generally, I feel lethargic. I suppose this is to be expected, and I fear that it’ll soon progress to the point of no return.

Ellen Wong (09:18):

As Douglas’s Health deteriorated American justice after decades, finally caught up with him. In November 2019, the Southern District of New York struck its blow.

Speaker 2 (09:41):

My office indicted Latchford for his role in a decades long scheme.

Speaker 3 (09:42):

The illicit trafficking of art and antiquities.

Speaker 4 (09:46):

Trafficking in antiquities is a multi-billion dollar [inaudible 00:09:50].

Speaker 5 (09:46):

Douglas Latchford facilitated the looting thousands of national treasures [inaudible 00:09:53].

Speaker 3 (09:46):

Transnational organized crime.

Speaker 4 (09:46):

… affiliated with Khmer Rouge.

Speaker 6 (09:52):

Linked to a man indicted by prosecutors two years ago. The Washington Post report that Douglas Latchford was indicted after allegedly trafficking stolen artifacts.

Ellen Wong (10:06):

The indictment meticulously laid out how Douglas for over half a century with the help of his network pulled off the fraud, but he was far away in Thailand and ailing. It looked unlikely the Justice Department would ever extradite him. As for Emma named as a scholar, her role also was laid out, but like Nancy, she’d cut a deal to avoid jail and was now focused on helping Cambodia get its statues back. As Brad Gordon sat with Emma in the National Museum in 2019, he was interested in one statue in particular, Sackona’s office had been talking with Blue Tiger, the former looter whom we met in episode two, and he described his role back in 1997 in stealing a beautiful statue of a war deity known as Skanda, riding a peacock. Douglas had sold the statue for $1.5 million. Emma knew where it had ended up, and she started talking.

Brad Gordon (11:15):

And she did give me names. She did help me to find the Skanda and the peacock. I didn’t know where that was, and that was one of the most important pieces we were looking for.

Ellen Wong (11:26):

The Cambodian government contacted the Southern District of New York. Prosecutors filed a civil complaint. The owners of the Skanda, the family of Mario Mannucci, a scholar of ancient philosophy and a collector agreed in 2022 to return it to Cambodia.

Brad Gordon (11:46):

Okay, she did one good deed. She helped us find the Skanda and peacock, but she could have done so much more.

Ellen Wong (11:56):

Blue Tiger is ecstatic the statue came home.

Blue Tiger (translator) (12:00):

I’m happy because getting those statues back means that the next generation will know about the Khmer traditions.

Ellen Wong (12:09):

He was also relieved to avoid any punishment from officials for his role in the looting.

Blue Tiger (translator) (12:16):

They’re not blaming me for anything.

Ellen Wong (12:19):

Brad talked to Emma later by phone.

Brad Gordon (12:22):

I talked to her three days before she died and I said, “All these statues are coming home, Emma. It’s a good thing they’re all coming back.” And she said, “I wouldn’t have written the books if I didn’t want that to happen.”

Ellen Wong (12:40):

Perhaps Emma had tricked herself into believing she’d written these books to safeguard Cambodian culture. In this retelling, it was always the plan to protect these statues, not steal them as she wrote in a book chapter toward the end of her life.

Emma Bunker (actor) (12:56):

Our views in the United States tend to be hugely unsophisticated and provincial, resulting in our lack of respect and appreciation for private collectors and dealers. Passionate private collectors have served as custodians of artifacts and have furthered scholarly knowledge. They are not all greedy looters.

Ellen Wong (13:18):

It’s a fantastical story that Alexander Goetz, the dealer and friend of Douglas, also believes

Alexander Goetz (13:25):

In all big stories. You need a fall guy, especially in Washington. Washington always needs a fall guy and they picked Douglas. He was old. He was frail. He was rich. He was made into the plunderer of Cambodian heritage and that’s it.

Ellen Wong (13:48):

Bangkok 2020.

Craig Wilson (13:51):

He was in a sort of a hospital bed on wheels, which they were able to wheel out from his bedroom into the living room to talk. I did want to see him and wish him well and say goodbye, and I’m glad I had that chance to.

Ellen Wong (14:08):

Craig Wilson visited Douglas in his Bangkok apartment just days before he passed away. Douglas died in August 2020, aged 88. The cause was organ failure brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Only nine months after being indicted, Douglas was cremated. The criminal charges now unenforceable. Only six months later, Emma Bunker died in Denver, age 90. As Tess Davis notes, despite their deaths, this story doesn’t yet have an ending.

Tess Davis (14:46):

I don’t think anyone, even his harshest critics, knew the extent of just how bad the truth was. And indeed, that story is still being written and each piece of evidence that is coming out, and they’re coming at a rapid pace now, not just every year, but sometimes every month it seems, reveals I think the story is much darker than any of his critics even suspected at the beginning.

Ellen Wong (15:19):

A month after Douglas’s death, Brad traveled to Abu Dhabi where he met with Julia Latchford. She agreed to return her father’s private collection to Cambodia. She also handed over disks with Douglas’s emails, which have formed part of the reporting for this podcast. Julia declined to comment.

Brad Gordon (15:40):

She’s the daughter of someone who did all these bad things. Did she do all this? Was she the one dealing with the Khmer Rouge guys? Was she the one getting photographs of temples taken and trying to figure out what to take off walls and so on? No, and she’s just his child. I think she understands that what we’re doing in Cambodia is a road of redemption. We’re dealing with killers. We’re dealing with Khmer Rouge child soldiers who massacred people, and now we’re asking them to do a good deed and they’re doing it.

Ellen Wong (16:14):

Cambodia is trying to heal the wounds of its history, but they’re still raw. A UN backed war crimes tribunal ended decades of investigations in 2022. This resulted in the convictions of only three Khmer Rouge leaders. Getting its statues back would be a huge national boost, says Chen Chanratana, a Cambodian archeologist. We first met in episode two.

Chen Chanratana (16:42):

For me, I’m happy to see every statue that looted from our country is coming back to the homeland. It’s healing the people.

Ellen Wong (16:54):

Working for Minister Sackona, Brad Gordon is involved in a 24 7 search. Many private collectors have returned their statues. Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape, the internet browser, and one of Douglas’s biggest clients agreed in 2022 to forfeit his entire $35 million collection. “I was freshly wealthy”, Clark told the Washington Post. “I was a bit naive. In those days, I just thought, wow, this is cool stuff. I’ll buy it for my apartment.” Other collectors remain nervous. In 2022, the Washington Post reported that Architectural Digest airbrushed out Khmer statues from a photo that accompanied a piece about the San Francisco home of the Lindemans, a billionaire family who bought from Douglas.

Brad Gordon (17:47):

All those collectors out there who have them, especially the ones who bought them the last 10 years or so, we’ve got tons of details on them. We have their email addresses, their phone numbers, we have photos of their houses. We have all kinds of information, so it’s a matter of time before authorities will be knocking on their door eventually. They have to give those back. They shouldn’t have stolen antiquities in their house.

Ellen Wong (18:14):

But there’s a roadblock. The Metropolitan Museum and other western museums don’t want to cooperate. The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2021 found the Met had 12 pieces linked to Douglas, the most of any museum. The Met is followed by the Denver Art Museum with six pieces, the British Museum, which has five, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, which holds three. The Cambodian government claims the Met has over 30 pieces linked to Latchford. In a statement to us, the Met wrote quote, “After Mr. Latchford was indicted, the Met proactively reached out to the US attorney’s office and has been fully cooperative. The Met also reached out directly to Dr. Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. We have continued our correspondence with Cambodia’s private attorney and have offered to constructively resolve any title questions.”


There’s another reason, of course, why the Met in other museums don’t return statues linked to Douglas, and it’s the same reason the British Museum holds on to the Elgin Marbles. If they give these up, the thinking goes. Western Museums could soon be empty, but as we consider the world we live in today, we must ask, is it right for museums in New York, London, and elsewhere to be full of art from other countries, especially these blood statues? Douglas and Emma are gone. Relics of a colonial mindset that stubbornly persists. Despite his nickname, it seems unlikely that Dynamite Doug himself actually used explosives to blow statues off their plinths. He may as well have. His actions tore asunder one country’s cultural history and continue to rock the foundation of the world’s most prestigious museums.

Tess Davis (20:23):

Latchford, I believe stance alone in that he really plundered this entire civilization. And while we’ll probably never know exactly, it does seem that many, if not most of the Cambodian pieces in the United States at least are tied to him in some way.

Ellen Wong (20:49):

Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty in 2021 and avoided jail time due to her role in helping get Douglas indicted. We had an actor read her statement to the court.

Nancy Wiener (actor) (21:02):

For decades, I conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiquities with vague or even no provenance was the norm. 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.

Ellen Wong (21:27):

Museum directors need to be as candid as Nancy, says Tess Davis.

Tess Davis (21:34):

I think we need to see a full accounting of how this happened, and not just assurances, but proof that this will not happen again, that we won’t see Cambodia’s story repeated for Ukraine, for Yemen, for Ethiopia. While institutions aren’t responsible for what their predecessors did, they are certainly responsible for their behavior today, and it is lacking in every sense.

Ellen Wong (22:08):

Today. In his mid-eighties living in retirement in upstate New York, Martin Lerner played a crucial role in the building of the Met’s collection.

Brad Gordon (22:18):

If there wasn’t a Martin Lerner out there, I’m not sure if you would’ve seen all these billionaires buying these Khmer antiquities. I think Lerner added a lot of prestige to these Cambodian antiquities.

Ellen Wong (22:33):

“Knowing what I know now, I should probably not have worked so closely with Mr. Latchford”, Martin told the New York Times in August 2022. He didn’t respond to our detailed list of questions.

Brad Gordon (22:46):

I think he was very aware of what Douglas was doing, and I think in the future we’re going to see more evidence of just how much a senior member of the Metropolitan Museum colluded with one of the greatest art thieves in history. My message to Martin Lerner right now because he is still alive is come clean. Call me. Call us in Cambodia. We need your knowledge. We need to understand the background of every single statue. Like what do you know about where they came from because we’re untangling an epic mess here.

Ellen Wong (23:32):

As for Emma, the Denver Art Museum nine months after she died, returned four pieces to Cambodia that were linked to Douglas, but the museum continues to this day to celebrate Emma’s work. In October 2021, it opened the Bunker Gallery on its fifth floor with $200,000 in donations from her family. The gallery includes some of the more than 220 pieces donated by Emma and her husband. 15 of them are of Khmer origin. Emma’s daughter, Harriet Bunker, told The Denver Post quote, “I really have a hard time believing that my mom was an art smuggler.” Emma too, surely died thinking she had done nothing wrong. She and Douglas were saving art from a troubled nation, weren’t they? In one of Emma’s last emails to Douglas, she couldn’t hide her wistfulness, both for her friend and a lost world, one in which they were young and acted as a soft fit. She’d always looked up to him, the last love of her life, and now like the statues they’d spent so long coveting, their friendship lay in pieces.

Emma Bunker (actor) (24:52):

Our next life will be exciting as we will again be young and handsome as we once were in this world. Will we recognize each other in the next? I think so. So what do you think?

Ellen Wong (25:14):

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.