Skip to main content

Episode 5: The Lion

Return to episode

Speaker 1 (00:00):


Ellen Wong (00:06):

Previously on Dynamite Doug.

Jessica Feinstein (00:09):

What we were able to see is that he lied to Sotheby’s.

Helen Jessup (00:12):

My jaw metaphorically dropped when I saw it.

Douglas Latchford (00:16):

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.

Phoeurng Sackona (00:28):

When the war came to Cambodia, I was 11 years old.

Ellen Wong (00:42):

Phoeurng Sackona has lived a life that’s difficult for anyone to comprehend. The Khmer Rouge took over her country in 1975, killing intellectuals, capitalists, government officials, and anyone who crossed them. Five members of Sackona’s family were murdered, including both parents. She came out of the war as an orphan, still only a teenager.

Phoeurng Sackona (01:13):

If the hell existed in the war, it was the Khmer Rouge. All of my family was killed.

Ellen Wong (01:22):

My own father fled Cambodia in 1975. My grandfather walked him and his brother to the Thai border. It was a perilous journey. My father and uncle eventually made it to a refugee camp, and then onward to Toronto in Canada in 1979. That’s where my dad and mom, also a Cambodian refugee, got married. They built a good life for us, but my father never got to see his dad again. My grandfather passed away during the Khmer Rouge takeover, after walking over 30 days to try to escape. Sackona, too, stayed behind. Against all odds, without the support of family, she went to the Soviet Union on a scholarship, completed her doctoral studies in France, and finally landed a job in Cambodia at the Institute of Technology. Back then, as we heard, she came across Douglas and Emma’s book in Phnom Penh’s airport in the 2000s, and questioned why these Khmer statues were on display in museums abroad. By 2013, Sackona was Cambodia’s new Minister of Culture, and now in a position to do something about it.

Phoeurng Sackona (02:39):

In my mind, how we can get back everything to Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (02:45):

For years, Cambodia’s government had seen Douglas Latchford as a savior, even returning statues to the country. But Sackona saw through Douglas, and she would refuse to be co-opted by him. This is Dynamite Doug from Project Brazen and PRX, and I’m Ellen Wong.


As the US battled Sotheby’s in court, prosecutors were also building a criminal file on Douglas. Sensing danger, Douglas would try to get close to Sackona, while at the same time continuing the con with the help of his American enablers. Koh Ker, Cambodia. 2013.

Sharon Cohen Levin (03:47):

This was really one of the first cases of its kind, where a country that had been involved in conflict who had lost a lot of property during that time period was seeking the recovery of the property.

Ellen Wong (04:00):

Sharon Cohen Levin, a prosecutor with the Southern District of New York, was standing in Koh Ker, looking at the broken feet from which the Sotheby’s statue had been hacked off 40 years earlier. Cambodia had lost huge amounts of its cultural property, all within living memory. This wasn’t like the Elgin Marbles being looted by British aristocrats hundreds of years ago.

Sharon Cohen Levin (04:24):

Cambodia was unique in the sense that, to most people, I guess the 1970s is a long time ago, but in the history of this kind of looting, that actually is pretty recent,

Ellen Wong (04:37):

Months after legal proceedings had begun, Sotheby’s was still refusing to return the statue that had been looted from Koh Ker and sold by Douglas. So, Sharon was digging for more information.

Sharon Cohen Levin (04:50):

We were just fortunate that people involved in the looting network were still alive and willing to speak with us. And then, the most amazing piece was Brad Gordon had located one of the looters, somebody that was known as the Lion.

Ellen Wong (05:06):

The Lion, a codename for a former Khmer Rouge soldier called Toek Tik, had been one of the most prolific looters of art. Brad Gordon, the American lawyer working in Cambodia, whom the Justice Department had hired to consult on the case, had tracked him down. So, after visiting the temples, Sharon went to visit the Lion in his modest home nearby. She brought along a copy of Adoration and Glory. Yet again, Douglas and Emma’s book, stacked with photos of looted Khmer art, was proving crucial.

Sharon Cohen Levin (05:40):

We brought it to the home of the Lion, to ask him if he could identify any of these statues. And I remember complaining that, was it worth taking the book? It’s very, very heavy.

Ellen Wong (05:52):

While Sharon had made a name for herself pursuing art stolen by the Nazis, her experience in Cambodia was entirely new.

Sharon Cohen Levin (06:00):

His home is on stilts. It’s one of the hottest places I’ve ever been in my entire life. No windows. And so, we’re in there and we take out the book, and it was crazy. He’s flipping through the thing and he’s like, “Yes. I took this one, I took this one, I think this one.”

Ellen Wong (06:17):

As a young man, the Lion had joined the Khmer Rouge and been forced to kill innocent people. He fled, traded cattle for a while, and then started looting statues in the late 1970s, working for a Khmer Rouge commander, and eventually controlling a team of some 400 people all over the country.

Sharon Cohen Levin (06:37):

You could see he deeply, deeply regretted it, and really was incredibly forthcoming about drawing a little picture of the sort of machete type device they used to cut off the heads of the statues, and told us exactly what happened. So, it was a pretty remarkable moment, and one I certainly will never forget.

Ellen Wong (07:00):

The conversation then turned to Douglas Latchford, Brad Gordon remembers. The Lion spoke about a broker who would traffic the pieces over the border to Douglas in Bangkok.

Brad Gordon (07:13):

He was a major, major broker near the Thai border, and he was moving so many of these statues across the border and into Latchford’s hands. And the Lion knew the main buyer was Douglas Latchford, and he called him Sia Ford. It’s like, Lord Ford. Sia is like a Thai word for lord.

Ellen Wong (07:37):

Douglas, in the documentary, acted as if he knew nothing of these looting networks.

Douglas Latchford (07:44):

It would seem that it was highly organized by people who had finances and the power, the authority to spend a month, say, disassembling something. But there’s no proof that it could have been the Khmer Rouge, or could have been the local authorities or the local constabulary, there’s no evidence to that effect.

Ellen Wong (08:09):

Brad became close to the Lion, who took him to his old hunting grounds in Koh Ker to identify which statues he’d looted. Brad’s team filmed as the Lion pointed out where pieces had once stood before he’d ripped them out.

Lion (translator) (08:25):

So this is a child with a crown. This is a female. This is a male. And the beautiful girl with broken arms is here.

Ellen Wong (08:42):

As they trudged through the jungle, Brad was shocked by the Lion’s tales of joining the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Brad Gordon (08:50):

When he was 11, 12 years old he had participated in massacres, huge massacres, and he told me about how many people he killed during the Khmer Rouge period. He told me just heart-wrenching stories about what it was like to be a child perpetrator.

Ellen Wong (09:09):

The Lion had only been a young boy, maybe 10, when the Sotheby’s statue, the Duryodhana, had been stolen in 1972.

Brad Gordon (09:18):

He had a number of relatives who were involved in the looting going back to the 60s and early 70s. So he had family members, uncles, his father, all involved in taking statues, and many of those went to Latchford. We see, for example, the Duryodhana. It went out maybe in 1972, and Lion’s family were involved in that. And Lion was riding on the ox cart as a 10-year-old when these were taken out, this is maybe right on the eve of him being recruited into the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.

Ellen Wong (09:59):

Sharon Cohen Levin and other US prosecutors continued to press ahead with their civil case to force Sotheby’s to hand over the statue. But all of the Lion’s talk of Sia Ford, or Douglas Latchford, got them thinking, perhaps there was enough information here to launch a criminal probe.

Sharon Cohen Levin (10:19):

Douglas Latchford was the premier expert on Khmer art, he was a hero in Cambodia, and we were really shocked to learn that he actually was one of the key architects of the looting scheme and was responsible for the looting of hundreds and hundreds of statues.

Ellen Wong (10:49):

Phnom Penh, 2013, when Phoeurng Sackona became culture minister, all she knew of Douglas was the book she’d leafed through at the airport. Soon after she took the job, though, Douglas reached out to her through an intermediary, dangling the possibility of returning more statues.

Phoeurng Sackona (11:11):

This person come to ask me, “What do you think if Douglas can give you some statue?” And, “He would like to talk with you.”

Ellen Wong (11:21):

Warned by a UNESCO official in Cambodia not to trust him, especially after the recent Sotheby’s case, Sackona refused to fly to Bangkok. But she was intrigued by the possibility of getting some of her country’s art back from Douglas, and so she sent two emissaries instead. In the meeting, Douglas offered to hand back five masterpieces of Khmer art, but he wanted something in return.

Phoeurng Sackona (11:47):

But before giving he would like me to clear his name. Write a letter, say that he didn’t do anything illegal.

Ellen Wong (11:58):

Douglas was perturbed by the US government’s civil suit over the Sotheby’s statue, which had detailed his involvement, referring to him as, “The collector.” He was looking for some kind of cover, like a statement from a Cambodian minister to support him.

Phoeurng Sackona (12:15):

I say, no, I cannot do that.

Ellen Wong (12:18):

It was Douglas’s old playbook, donating small pieces to Cambodia as a coverup, while continuing to sell. But the Cambodian government was getting more sophisticated, says William Heidt, who served in Cambodia as a diplomat in the 1990s, and returned as ambassador from 2015 to 2018.

William Heidt (12:38):

The government of Cambodia has gotten steadily more capable since the mid-90s. The government’s now better funded, they have better people working for them, they have access to better international legal help. And I think they, like everyone else, started to reappraise Latchford. He had been hailed as the guy who brought Khmer art to the world, he was given basically a knighthood. And then it started to change.

Ellen Wong (13:05):

As Sackona learned more about Douglas, including through meetings with US officials, she became determined to get all of Cambodia’s statues back.

William Heidt (13:18):

And I think the other thing that went on is the politics of it changed in Cambodia. There was this time when they were so poor where they would accept any help from anybody and they were grateful about it, but it got to a point where they realized that this would be politically very popular to get some of this artwork back, it would show the Cambodian people that they were fighting for their patrimony.

Ellen Wong (13:37):

In Emma and Douglas’s email correspondence, they showed deep appreciation for Cambodian art, but often disdain for Cambodians. In one, from January 2016, Douglas wrote to Emma about a plan to return a bronze to Cambodia’s National Museum, “They will be lucky to get this, or anything else,” he wrote, “they don’t deserve it as their performance has been a disgrace.” In public, Douglas was more circumspect.

Douglas Latchford (14:08):

I think it’s a wonderful thing that pieces are donated back to the museum. I mean, I’ve done a small amount, my share of donating pieces back to the Phnom Penh, and it’s my and my family’s intention over a period of time to donate more. And I’ve already expressed this opinion to the ministry of culture.

Ellen Wong (14:37):

But Sackona wasn’t willing to take Douglas’s leftovers anymore. As they did for many Cambodians, these pieces held a spiritual, not just artistic, significance.

Phoeurng Sackona (14:49):

For me, every statue have a spirit. For me it’s not really the stone, it is the soul of our ancestor.

Ellen Wong (15:00):

Many Cambodians, my family included, live with a deep sense of loss. More than 30 years after fleeing, my father traveled to Cambodia in 2011, and we accompanied him, and it was an emotional trip reuniting with family. My father’s life by then was in Canada, but his roots were in Cambodia. He never got to say goodbye to his home, never thought he’d ever have to leave. And so by going back with us, he exerted control over his own story. Sackona also wanted Cambodia to control its own narrative. After she turned down Douglas’s offer to return statues, she visited foreign museums, viewing for the first time many of the looted items. She resolved to take action.

Phoeurng Sackona (15:54):

It’s the start for my thinking, how Cambodia can get back this statue to our country?

Maxwell Hearn (16:06):

Of course, we’ll miss them. But the new evidence that came apparent to us made it clear that they belonged back in Cambodia.

Ellen Wong (16:14):

Cambodia’s newfound resolve soon paid off. The Metropolitan Museum under pressure from Cambodia agreed to more repatriations. Maxwell Hearn, a curator from the museum, traveled to Cambodia to bring back two statues. These were the two Kneeling Attendants, the centerpiece of Martin Lerner’s collection at the Met, donated by Douglas and others starting in the 1980s, which we heard about in episode two.


The Met in a statement said, “The Met voluntarily returned two objects known as the Kneeling Attendants to Cambodia, which were demonstrated to be from Koh Ker in 2013. This move was described as historic by Cambodian officials and one that paved the way for other repatriations to that country and cemented our strong and productive partnership with its cultural leaders.”


But the Met failed to give back scores of other statues linked to Douglas. A Met curator even asked Douglas in September 2013, after the return of the Kneeling Attendants for him to loan the museum yet another statue. Douglas declined the request.

Douglas Latchford (actor) (17:29):

In the present climate, it’s perhaps not the wisest of things to do. I hope once this uncalled-for hunt is over and the wild stories are clarified and put to bed, people will be able to see the facts and reality more clearly. I have tried and I believe succeeded in promoting and generating a better understanding of the art.

Ellen Wong (17:58):

In tapes for the documentary, which aired in 2014, Douglas made it sound like the market for Khmer art had dried up under the international pressure.

Douglas Latchford (18:09):

It’s a good day for Cambodia. It’s a bad day for the art market. I think since the Sotheby’s case started two years ago, there’s been very little for sale in auction houses and dealers in New York, particularly of Khmer art.

Ellen Wong (18:31):

But Douglas wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. And beyond the Met itself, there were other actors in the art world who were willing to keep his trade going. Martin Lerner, the former curator by now retired from the Met, had opened an art consulting business in upstate New York, and one of his most important clients was Douglas. Even in this new hostile climate, Douglas thought he could keep selling.

Douglas Latchford (18:59):

As I said earlier, pieces that have provenance, pieces from the ’50s and ’60s or early ’70s, I think those pieces probably will circulate again.

Ellen Wong (19:12):

But Douglas faced a problem. There was only a limited supply of such items. Martin helped out. Douglas paid him thousands of dollars to write appraisals for pieces, giving a scholarly gloss to them and aiding sales. On several occasions, Douglas wrote the appraisals for Martin, who simply copy-pasted them and signed off as a former curator at the Met.


In an email from March 8th, 2016, for instance, Douglas asked Martin to say he saw a bronze statue in 1968 in Spink and Son in London, and sent him the details. Martin copied the text verbatim. Douglas later sold the statue to a dealer in New York. Martin appears to have been well paid. In the emails, Douglas calls himself Bong and refers to Martin as Gray Beard. In a June 2017 email, Douglas talks about selling two pieces to quote, “Help the Gray Beard/Bong retirement fund.”


A bank statement on Douglas’s computer shows he transferred $100,000 to Martin on November 18th, 2011. Martin Lerner did not respond to requests for comment. In 2022, the former curator told the New York Times, which first reported on this payment, that it was a loan from Douglas. He later said it was a payment from a gallery to whom he had sold an object through Latchford.

Jason Felch (20:54):

He was lending his expertise to Latchford in exchange for several thousand dollars a pop to help Latchford convince buyers that these objects not just were important art historically, but also had the seal of approval from a former carrier at the Met. And that would assuage any concerns that these buyers had about Latchford and about his credibility as the dealer.

Ellen Wong (21:19):

For Jason Felch, the author who specializes in art theft, the details of Martin’s role are alarming.

Jason Felch (21:26):

What they’re doing in those exchanges appears to be creating false provenance. If indeed Latchford was feeding that information to Lerner, and Lerner was regurgitating it to Latchford, Lerner was participating in the creation of false provenances. And creating false documentation for objects that are stolen would make you a party to a trafficking network.

Ellen Wong (21:56):

Denver, Colorado, 2013. On June 6th, Emma Bunker walked into the office of her lawyers in the city park, west neighborhood of Denver. Prosecutors from the southern District of New York, including Sharon Cohen Levin, were seated at a conference table.


Back from her trip to Cambodia and meeting the Lion, Sharon was there to ask Emma questions about the Sotheby’s sale and her relationship with Douglas Latchford. Emma had become known to prosecutors because of her role in helping Douglas create fake provenances in the Sotheby’s case, says Jessica Feinstein, another prosecutor with a Southern district, who refers to Emma only as a scholar, because investigations are still ongoing to this day.

Jessica Feinstein (22:44):

He worked with a scholar in particular in their communications with Sotheby’s. It was a long time partner of his who helped him paper over a lot of providence over the years. And the scholar popped up in those communications as well.

Ellen Wong (23:01):

That day in Denver, prosecutors were testing Emma out. How much did she know? According to notes her lawyers took of the session, the tone was friendly at first. One prosecutor told Emma she wasn’t the target of a criminal investigation. They were just trying to gather information for their civil case involving the Sotheby statue.


However, Emma’s lawyers sensed the hint of a threat of criminal proceedings against their client. Prosecutors were just scratching the surface. They didn’t yet know of Emma’s role in helping Douglas create fake provenances for statues. But Emma sensed danger.


And when talk turned to Douglas Latchford, she didn’t tell the truth about the depth of their relationship. They met in 1978 at a party, she told investigators, even though she’d known him since the 1960s. Emma said she thought him odd as he was six four and wore a sarong. She didn’t meet him again for many more years. Later, they worked together to bring items back to Cambodia. She had no knowledge of how he bought and sold things. Emma must have been rattled. Douglas was toxic.


Six months after the interview, Sotheby’s finally agreed to settle its civil case with the US government without admitting fault and return the looted Koh Ker statue to Cambodia’s National Museum. A few months later, the Norton Simon Museum in California also agreed to return the companion statue. Despite her scare, Emma kept up her daily contact with Douglas. He even got hold of her lawyer’s notes of the interview with prosecutors, and so he knew he was on their radar. Old and worried, Emma was getting more angry about negative press articles, about scholars who didn’t take her seriously, about most other people, really. Take this 2014 email, read by an actor, in response to a piece by Jason Felch about Douglas.

Emma Bunker (actor) (25:19):

They have added all sorts of little inaccurate remarks, which are just wrong. I’m not sure who reads all this. I think the museums just ignore it all, as no one I know has said a word since Sotheby’s sent their piece back. I think antiquities is no longer a good buy unless you live in the country of origin. Call when you’re awake, fed, and friendly.

Ellen Wong (25:44):

When the Sotheby’s case settled, prosecutors now turned fully to building their criminal dossier against Douglas. As well as interviewing Emma, they focused on Nancy Wiener, the dealer in Southeast Asian Art whose family business had served for years as a pipeline for the Met and other museums. Her mother, Doris, Douglas’s close friend, had died in 2011. Nancy opened a new gallery a few blocks away from the Met. Investigators subpoenaed documents, and what they found was shocking. Emails showed that in 2011, Nancy had knowingly bought a looted Bronze Buddha from Douglas for $500,000 and was planning to resell it for 1.5 million. Prosecutors uncovered an email in which Emma advised Douglas to create yet another false ownership history for the piece.

Emma Bunker (actor) (26:43):

I wonder whether it might not be better to say that you bought it from a Thai collector when you first moved to Bangkok in the 1950s.

Ellen Wong (26:51):

Emma and Douglas then created fake provenances for the Buddha, court documents show, as well as getting the Buddha image published in a book. Alexander Goetz, the Bali based dealer, says this sealed Douglas’s fate.

Alex Goetz (27:06):

He made one mistake with Nancy Wiener. She begged and begged and begged for provenance letter, and then he gave in because it was a daughter of his long-standing friend, Doris Wiener. So he felt pity for the daughter, and he came up with this letter. I know for sure, because I was talking with Douglas about it, and he said, “Alex, what am I going to do? Shall I give it to her?” And I said, “Why not? Come on, give her a break.”

Ellen Wong (27:40):

The fake provenance helped seal Nancy’s fate. In December 2016, she was arrested on charges of conspiring with international smuggling networks to buy, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of stolen Asian art through leading auction houses. The Bronze Buddha was cited in the indictment with Douglas and Emma referred to as co-conspirator number one and co-conspirator number two. By now, prosecutors were building a clear picture of this shocking smuggling ring with Douglas at its beating heart. Far away in Bangkok, he was a much bigger catch than Nancy Wiener, and so prosecutors offered her a deal and she began to talk. Like Nancy, Emma was also a small fry compared to Douglas. Scared by Nancy’s arrest and fearing the same fate, she too would soon turn on her old friend. Next on Dynamite Doug.

Brad Gordon (28:52):

You know, it’s like a spy movie. She’s giving me secret information about where all these statues are.

Alex Goetz (28:58):

In all big stories, you need a fall guy.

Tess Davis (29:01):

The story is much darker than any of his critics even suspected at the beginning.

Ellen Wong (29:17):

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 Lily, and Richard Trapp. If you like this episode, please be sure to tell a friend. Or write and review it wherever you listen.