In January 2018, Emma C. Bunker and the Denver Art Museum reached an agreement — one that would etch the longtime donor and board member’s name on the institution’s walls for half a century to come.
The esteemed scholar, who helped the Denver museum build its Asian art collection over six decades, would donate $125,000 to the museum’s Vision 2021 Capital Campaign, a project to renovate the north building and expand the museum campus. Two of her children would chip in another $60,000 combined.
In return, the Denver Art Museum agreed to put the Bunker name in three-dimensional lettering on a gallery wall, displayed in a prominent location until 2071.
But five years to the day after Bunker put pen to paper on a deal that would cement her legacy in the Mile High City for decades to come, the museum notified the Colorado attorney general that it planned to remove her name from the wall in the Martin Building and give back all the money.
The museum’s attorney, in a Jan. 25 letter obtained this week by The Denver Post, wrote that the institution could no longer abide by the naming agreement due to mounting evidence that its respected donor — who died in 2021 — aided a criminal enterprise.
The letter was sent nearly two months after the publication of a yearlong investigation by The Post that found Bunker helped her close friend and collaborator, Douglas Latchford, sell and loan looted Cambodian relics across the globe.
“In light of Bunker’s long involvement with Latchford, connection to pieces with false provenance, documents indicating that she intentionally provided false provenance, and related issues, the museum has determined that it is no longer willing to abide by the (naming agreement),” the museum’s lawyer, Heidi S. Glance, wrote in the letter.
RELATED: Looted: Stolen relics, laundered art and a Colorado scholar’s role in the illicit antiquities trade
Now, the Bunker name has come down, Denver Art Museum officials confirmed Thursday. The six-figure donation was returned to her estate and children.
“This action, approved by the museum’s Board of Trustees, follows evidence that former museum trustee and volunteer, Emma Bunker, participated with indicted art dealer Douglas Latchford to mislead the museum into acquiring looted and illegally trafficked works of art,” the museum said in a statement released Thursday.
Along with the naming agreement, Bunker also donated nine artworks to her beloved museum, pieces she promised had “not been imported or exported into or from any country contrary to its laws.” At least six of those works are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The museum wants to give back the rest, either to their countries of origin or to the Bunker family.
All told, the removal of Bunker’s name and monetary return represents the most significant action taken by the Denver Art Museum since The Post’s investigation outlined the scholar’s integral role in an international art looting scandal.
“We hope this marks a turning point for the Denver Art Museum,” Bradley J. Gordon, a lawyer spearheading Cambodia’s global quest to reclaim its heritage, said Wednesday. “It starts to recognize the terrible harm Emma Bunker and Douglas Latchford did to an entire nation.”
Three of Bunker’s children did not respond to requests for comment or declined to speak to a reporter Wednesday.
A scholar’s role examined
The Post’s series found Bunker was hardly a passive player in Latchford’s scheme to sell stolen Cambodian relics for huge profits.
The Bangkok-based collector and dealer over the years accumulated one of the world’s largest private collections of Khmer antiquities — many of which, authorities say, were plundered during Cambodia’s bloody civil war by bands of Khmer Rouge soldiers. Latchford, meanwhile, sold these thousand-year-old artifacts to wealthy foreign collectors and prominent museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And he couldn’t have done it without his trusted confidant in Denver, The Post’s reporting found.
Emails taken from Latchford’s computer — and shared with The Post — show Bunker overtly discussing how to forge signatures on documents needed to transport looted works. She co-authored three books on Khmer art that experts say were necessary for Latchford to legitimize and move his plundered pieces around the globe, and she repeatedly vouched for falsified provenances — antiquities’ ownership history.
Bunker’s association with the Denver Art Museum also allowed Latchford to use the Mile High City museum as a way station for these priceless Southeast Asian relics — serving to sanitize them for sale to future buyers, The Post found. Latchford sold, loaned and gifted 14 pieces to the museum, deals that Bunker shepherded along. Only the Met had more Latchford pieces in its collection than Denver.
The Colorado scholar, who died at age 90, is named or referenced in five civil and criminal cases related to trafficking stolen art, though she never was charged with a crime. A federal grand jury in New York indicted Latchford in 2019, accusing him of pilfering Cambodia’s cultural heritage. He died in 2020 before he could stand trial.
The Denver Art Museum, through last year, defended its association with Bunker and her decades of financial and scholarly contributions, despite growing evidence that she collaborated in Latchford’s illicit dealings.
Chasing Aphrodite, a blog covering the movement of stolen antiquities, detailed Bunker’s questionable involvement with several pieces at Denver’s museum in 2012. The New York Times identified Bunker in 2017 as a “co-conspirator” in a scheme to doctor provenances — or ownership histories — to allow stolen Cambodia antiquities to be sold on the open market.
Public court documents referencing Bunker’s role in Latchford’s operation were available a decade ago, repeatedly mentioning a “Colorado scholar.”
Only now is the museum reckoning with Bunker’s past.
The museum’s attorney, in the January letter, cited “documentary evidence and sworn testimony of which the museum has recently become aware suggests that Bunker facilitated Latchford’s illegal activities by providing false provenances for, and introducing him to the museum for the acquisition, assumption on loan, and display of, various artworks involved in the DOJ Investigation.”
“The museum has learned that before Bunker died in 2021, her role in Latchford’s criminal activities was part of the DOJ investigation, which continues to focus on the provenance of several Asian antiquities she donated to the museum,” Glance wrote.
The museum also intends to rid itself of the pieces that Bunker agreed to donate in 2017, including six Cambodian bronzes. Six of the nine items the scholar gave the museum are under federal investigation, while five objects not associated with the gift agreement were also shared with federal investigators. The museum said it will either return the artworks to their country of origin or to the Bunker family, pending the DOJ probe.
The Attorney General’s Office was notified since it is charged with overseeing the state’s nonprofits and charitable organizations.
After The Post’s series, the museum has been slowly distancing itself from Bunker’s association.
Officials in December removed from the museum’s website an Asian art acquisition fund named in Bunker’s honor, pledging to use some of that money for provenance research.
The museum also said it would be making it a “top priority” to probe items in the collection associated with Bunker. The Denver Art Museum received 221 pieces from the Bunker family over the years, with 34 still on display as of December.
Around 40 of these objects are considered antiquities and “remain a continuing focus of the museum’s provenance research,” a museum spokesperson, Andy Sinclair, wrote in an email Thursday.
“A pretty big deal”
Removing a donor’s name from a wall or building is uncommon, though there are a few recent examples.
Art museums in the U.S. and Europe in the last few years have scrubbed mentions of the Sackler family, the OxyContin makers accused of launching the opioid crisis.
But giving back nearly $200,000 rarely happens in the museum world. Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said he didn’t do that once in 20 years at the helm.
“It’s hard to imagine a circumstance when that would happen,” he said. “That’s a pretty big deal.”
Gordon, meanwhile, said Cambodia is still waiting for the Denver Art Museum and Bunker’s family to share records and photographs of Khmer antiquities as his team continues its hunt.
“This information could significantly speed up the massive task we have in front of us to track down Cambodia’s stolen national treasures, scattered across the globe,” he said.
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