Denver Art Museum Director Christoph Heinrich hangs jasmine on the Torso of Rama, a 10th century stone statue, in a handing-over ceremony in Phnom Penh in 2016. The stone statue, looted from a temple during Cambodia's civil war, was acquired by the museum in 1986. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The Denver Art Museum has been lassoed into an International art smuggling scam and is now trying to extricate itself in negotiations with the Cambodian government.

The looting and trafficking of Khmer Empire statues and artifacts from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand came to light in an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists examination of offshore trusts and companies used to hide or shield assets from the public or tax collectors.

The consortium shared 11.9 million documents from companies that specialized in offshore accounts – dubbed the Pandora Papers – with 150 media outlets around the world.

Most of the documents focus on billionaires, present and former heads of state, corporate moguls, oligarchs and kings and their villas in Monte Carlo, Malibu mansions, Caribbean yachts and private jets all over the place.

There was, however, one story by The Washington Post and British and Australian media, about giant sandstone statutes and bronze busts and an English art collector named Douglas Latchford.

Latchford, a self-styled expert on Southeast Asian art and explorer of remote jungle temples, amassed one of the largest private collections of art from the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th Century to 15th Century.

Latchford was at the same time engaged in the smuggling and illegal sale of looted Khmer art, according to a 2019 federal indictment of the art dealer for wire fraud and smuggling.

Between 1970 and the 1990s Cambodia was inconstant turmoil, with periodic outbreaks of civil war enabling smugglers and looters freer rein over valuable and often remote archeological sites.

Among the pieces that Latchford sold or brokered were six that found their way to the Denver Art Museum. They were among more than 27 items the Washington Post found in collections of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and British Museum in London.

The 2019 indictment explained that to facilitate the sale and international transport of the looted items, Latchford created false export licenses, false letters of provenance, false invoices and used someone as a front, called the “false collector.”

“In or about 2000, Latchford sold a 12th Century stone Khmer sculpture to a museum in Colorado,” the indictment said. “Latchford informed the Colorado Museum that he had purchased the piece from the False Collector in June 1999, and provided the Colorado Museum with a letter of provenance purportedly from the False Collector as part of the sale.”

“However, Latchford also supplied the Colorado Museum with records indicating that the statue was transported from Latchford’s residence in Bangkok to London in 1994, long before he claimed to have purchased it from the False Collector,” according to the indictment.

Latchford was 88 when he died last year, before his case could come to trial, but Nancy Wiener, 66, a New York art dealer, who sold some of Latchford’s plunder, pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property on Oct. 5.

And what of the contraband in Denver?

“The Denver Art Museum has six objects gifted to the museum by or purchased from Douglas Latchford, four of them from the Kingdom of Cambodia and two of them from Thailand,” the museum said in a statement to The Sun.

“In 2019, the museum contacted officials in Cambodia to gather additional information about the four pieces from that country,” the statement continued. “The museum has been in conversation with government officials in both the U.S. and Cambodia regarding the objects in its collection related to Latchford from that country. All four Cambodian works associated with Latchford were deaccessioned from the museum’s collection on Sept. 1, 2021, and DAM is working with the government to return the pieces to Cambodia.”

 The museum also said “provenance research is always ongoing at the DAM in accordance with the appropriate protocols.”

The museum declined to identify the six pieces it holds from Latchford, but in March 2016, Christoph Heinrich, DAM’s curator, took part in a ceremony in Phnom Penh, marking the return of a 10th century sandstone statue known as Torso of Rama to Cambodia

DAM acquired the statue in 1986 from the Nancy Wiener Gallery. The gallery was founded by Nancy Wiener’s mother, Doris, a major dealer in Indian and Southeast Asian art, who died in 2011.

The Torso of Rama, a 10th century stone statue, is displayed during a handing-over ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on March 28, 2016. Cambodia welcomed home the stone statue, which was looted from a temple during the country’s civil war, from the Denver Art Museum. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Cambodia is continuing the hunt for all the art and artifacts stolen by Latchford and others.

“We will never give up pursuing the return of our heritage,” Phoeurng Sackona, the Cambodian minister of culture and fine arts, told The Washington Post.

“These objects are not just decorations, but have spirits and are considered as lives,” she said. “It is hard to quantify their loss to our temples and country — losing them was like losing the spirits of our ancestors.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe