Pandora Papers Point to Potentially Looted Artifacts in Major Museums

“Head of a Buddha” (ca. 920-50), from Cambodia, gifted by Douglas J. Latchford to the Met Museum in New York City (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The art world’s embroilment in the offshore financial system is among the key findings of the so-called “Pandora Papers,” a trove of nearly 12 million documents leaked and published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) this weekend.

The Washington Post and its ICIJ partners uncovered offshore trusts used by the late antiquities dealer Douglas Latchfort to transact in looted art. Latchfort was charged with trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian objects by the Justice Department in 2019, but when he died last year, the indictment was dismissed. His daughter and heir, Nawapan Kriangsak, announced this January that she would repatriate his holdings of Cambodian antiquities — approximately 125 works valued at $50 million and considered the greatest private collection of Khmer Dynasty artifacts.

But “dozens” of pieces traded by Latchford are currently on view in major institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the British Museum in London, the Post says. A keyword search for Latchford on the Met’s website yields 12 objects that were gifted to the museum directly by the disgraced dealer or list his name in the provenance text, meaning he at one point owned and sold the work.

In 2013, the Met returned a pair of statues known as the “Kneeling Attendants” to Cambodia after determining that they had been smuggled from the Koh Ker temple complex around the time of the nation’s civil war in the 1970s, a period of rampant looting. The sculptures were donated in fragments, with Latchford gifting one of the two heads with the auction house Spink & Son in 1987 and both torsos in 1992.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, the museum said it is “reviewing the pieces that came to The Met’s collection via Latchford and his associates.”

“As we continue our research, we will engage with the government of Cambodia as needed, as we have had a strong and productive partnership with their cultural leaders in the past,” the museum continued. “The Met also has a long and well documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate, being transparent about the provenance of works in the collection, and supporting further research and scholarship by sharing all known ownership history on metmuseum.org.”

New York Times report from 2013 said the dealer denied involvement in the illegal shipment of Cambodian antiquities, and said he only helped salvage items that would have otherwise been “shot up for target practice” by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

In his 2019 indictment, however, Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman alleged that Latchford “built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archeological sites, in the international art market.” Berman also charged the collector with falsifying invoices, provenance material, and shipping documents to circumvent customs restrictions and “facilitate the international shipment of the antiquities to dealers and buyers.” According to the Post, Latchford set up trusts in tax havens shortly after the investigation began.

While the paper did not connect specific artworks to Latchford’s offshore activity, it said that the leaked documents “help to illustrate how even respected US institutions can become entangled in allegedly tainted transactions.” In the coming days, an eight-article series in the Post will examine key findings from the leak, including a report on the role of offshore companies in the global art trade.

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