Denver Art Museum to Repatriate Ancient Cambodian Bell

Fallout continues after the October 2021 publication of the Pandora Papers, a cache of almost 12 million documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The documents provide a glimpse into a shadow financial system that benefits the world’s richest and most powerful individuals – including art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 by U.S. prosecutors after decades of alleged trafficking in looted antiquities.

In 2005, Mr. Latchford gifted the Denver Art Museum an Iron Age bronze bell, crafted in Cambodia around the first century BCE (accession number: 2005.105). No provenance or publication history accompanied the artifact. 

Museums, of course, have an obligation to rigorously research and review the origins of any objects that come into their collections. This is meant to curb the flow of illegally looted or improperly acquired antiquities. But given Mr. Latchford’s largesse and his self-publicized expertise on ancient Khmer art, the Denver Art Museum looked past some of the obvious red flags. They weren’t the only ones. 

The Pandora Papers investigation found that at least 27 objects sold or gifted by Mr. Latchford and his associates over the years remain in prominent collections around the world. Each of these pieces is alleged to have been stolen from significant cultural sites, with Mr. Latchford sitting atop an organized looting network that systematically pillaged the ruins of Khmer temples deep in Cambodia’s jungles. The temples, built a thousand years ago, stand as a testament to the empire's incredible wealth, power, artistry, and devotion.

It is thought the bronze bell originally belonged to a set of 12 distinctly tuned bells looted from a province north of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Although Mr. Latchford owned at least half the stolen set, he separated the bells and spread them among various collectors – inhibiting how musicologists could study the instrument and depriving archeologists of valuable contextual information.

Within the last few weeks, the Denver Art Museum removed the bell and three other antiquities connected to Mr. Latchford from their collection after receiving a letter from journalists involved in the investigation. The museum has begun working with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to repatriate the relics to their homeland. Mr. Latchford died at his home in Bangkok in August 2020, aged 88, but the vestiges of his illicit trade continue.