The Denver Art Museum announced Friday that it had removed the name of a former trustee from one of its galleries after an investigation revealed that she had ties to Douglas Latchford, the disgraced antiquities dealer who died in 2020. The news was first reported by the Denver Post Thursday.
In 2018, the Denver Art Museum accepted a donation of $125,000 from Emma C. Bunker, a scholar who had served as a trustee and volunteer at DAM, as part of a capital campaign; her monetary donation was accompanied by a gift of nine artworks. In addition to Bunker’s donation, DAM also accepted a combined donation of $60,000 from two of Bunker’s children. With that $185,000, DAM agreed to name one of the galleries dedicated to its Asian art collection the Bunker Gallery, which was to last until 2017.
Last year, a major investigative report by the Denver Post revealed that Bunker, who died in 2021, had collaborated with Latchford to legitimize Khmer antiquities, including allegedly strategizing about how to forge signatures that would be necessary to import and sell the antiquities, authoring books that gave further credence to Latchford’s looted objects, and personally vouching for objects she knew to have falsified provenance documents.
In a letter dated January 25 and published by the Denver Post, DAM informed the Colorado Attorney General’s office, which has oversight over nonprofits operating in the state, that it would remove the Bunker name from its walls and return the cash donations to the Bunker family and estate. After Latchford was indicted by federal grand jury in October 2019, DAM “proactively reached out to officials in Cambodia and Thailand and ultimately repatriated several artworks in its collection associated with Latchford” and that prior to her death, Bunker’s “role in Latchford’s criminal activities was part of the DOJ Investigation,” according to the letter.
Latchford, who was also a collector of the artifacts he sold, is believed to have sold dozens of looted artifacts to several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, in addition to DAM. Since his death, several works have been repatriated by his estate, as well as by collectors he had sold them to and the US government, which had previously seized objects that were relevant to its investigation. The most recent of these came last month, when his estate returned 77 rare gold artifacts to Cambodia.
Over the course of 60 years, the Bunker family donated more than 200 objects to the museum, ranging from modern and contemporary works to textiles and other pieces. Among the 200 objects that the Bunker family had donated to DAM, around 40 of them are antiquities. For his part, Latchford loaned or donated 14 objects to DAM, according to the Denver Post. The museum deaccessioned at least four of these in 2021.
Of the nine that Bunker donated as part of the naming rights agreement, DAM “believes that six (6) remain involved in the ongoing DOJ Investigation” and that authorities are aware that the remaining three were donated by Bunker in order to determine if they are relevant to the investigation, according to the letter to the Colorado AG’s office.
According to a DAM statement, dated March 10, “the museum, cooperating with U.S. authorities, continues to conduct research into the ownership histories of these objects … with those connected to Ms. Bunker as a top priority.”
The museum did not respond to ARTnews’s request for further comment.
According to the Denver Post’s investigation, court documents, available as early as a decade ago, reference a “Colorado scholar” that was involved in Latchford’s alleged looted antiquities trafficking ring. (The Denver Post’s first article in its three-part series was titled “Unmasking ‘The Scholar’: The Colorado woman who helped a global art smuggling operation flourish for decades.) Additionally, the blog Chasing Aphrodite identified Bunker connections to Latchford, specifically to how they related to DAM, in a 2012 article, as did a 2017 investigation by the New York Times.
In its statement, the Denver Art Museum said, “Ethical collection practices are a core value of the Denver Art Museum, evidenced by its ongoing commitment to provenance research and the repatriation of pieces where appropriate. In addition to collaborating with government authorities, the museum also works directly with peer museums and countries of origin to pursue facts and ensure proper ownership. Over the last several years, the DAM has invested additional staff and resources to increase capacity for researching the ownership histories of objects in its collections, focused on both accuracy and cultural sensitivity.”