Asian Art Museum reckons with Cambodian antiquities of disputed provenance

Pandora Papers revelations accelerate culture shift at museums near and far

On Oct. 3, the International Consortium of Journalists announced the receipt of millions of leaked documents detailing the offshore bank accounts of politicians, business leaders, billionaires and other powerful people. Investigative reporters have used these documents to trace not only the movement of money through secretive financial dealings, but also the covert owners and traders of private jets, yachts, mansions, artworks and antiquities. These documents are called the Pandora Papers.

One of the men whose financial dealings are detailed in the Pandora Papers is Douglas Latchford, a Brit who was indicted by U.S. authorities on multiple counts, but died before the trial last year. He allegedly sold and personally collected hundreds of stolen Cambodian antiquities, though many have never been traced to their final destination.

The Pandora Papers revealed where 43 relics linked to Latchford and his associates are held today. Two pieces linked to Latchford’s associates in ICIJ’s report are on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The museum’s deputy director of arts and programs, Robert Mintz, said the Pandora Papers’ findings weren’t a surprise, and they represent a culture shift the museum has been adapting to for several years.

“Museums that hold antiquities are evaluating what it is we decide to feature about a work,” said Mintz. “It’s becoming more and more relevant to people to think about how objects move and how their meaning changes as they move from one place or one ownership to another.”

Robert Mintz, deputy director of art and programs at the Asian Art Museum, said the Pandora Papers’ findings mainstream a culture shift about antiquity origins that have been happening for several years. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Robert Mintz, deputy director of art and programs at the Asian Art Museum, said the Pandora Papers’ findings mainstream a culture shift about antiquity origins that have been happening for several years. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Latchford has a complicated history in art history circles. Mintz said as a young art historian he was taught that Latchford was a “passionate supporter of the arts and culture of Cambodia.” Later, and particularly as evidence of Latchford’s alleged looting and theft came to the fore, Mintz said he came to “realize that even passionate supporters can be destructive.”

Mintz said perspectives are changing about Cambodian pieces in question at the Asian Art Museum. A lion, which guarded approaches to a Khmer temple, came from the auction house Spink & Son in London, which Latchford traded through for decades. Second, a golden dedicatory plaque, likely from Cambodia but with uncertain origins, came from the gallery of Doris Wiener in New York. Wiener’s daughter pleaded guilty to falsifying documents to hide the murky histories of Southeast Asian treasures earlier this month. Mintz said when the pieces were acquired decades ago, the museum assumed they left their countries of origin in a legal manner.

He also said most museums would have presumed the same. Until recently, museums tended to trust each other and established auction houses, art dealers and galleries at their word. Now that the Pandora Papers have raised suspicion about 43 antiquities on display at 10 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and British Museum, a team of researchers at the Asian Art Museum is independently researching the artworks’ histories. If the artworks are found to have left their countries of origin illegally, the museum will return them. The Cambodian government considers any Khmer relic taken without permission to be looted, and demands repatriation.

“I think the whole museum economy relied on trust, and relied on a belief that the bad actors would be identified and kept out of the mix,” said Mintz. “Now, we don’t assume anything.”

A Cambodian dedicatory plaque at the Asian Art Museum, a gift from the Shorenstein Fund dating back to between 600 to 800, was identified as a potential stolen art object. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>

A Cambodian dedicatory plaque at the Asian Art Museum, a gift from the Shorenstein Fund dating back to between 600 to 800, was identified as a potential stolen art object. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

It’s not the first time in recent history the Asian Art Museum has been confronted with potentially holding stolen art. Two Thai lintels from Khmer temples found their way, through a series of trades, to the museum’s collection in 1966 and 1968. The lintels, intricately carved sandstone slabs that once decorated Khmer temples, were discovered when a 61-year-old Thai archeologist recognized them from old photographs. In 2016, he began an online campaign to repatriate the items. The Asian Art Museum returned them in February after four years of requests for their repatriation, first by a Peace Corps member based in Thailand, then by Thai officials and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and finally by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District of California, which filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the museum.

According to attorney and art historian Karren Shorofsky, an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco, many different U.S. laws apply to looted art as well as the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which is meant to fight against looting, illicit trafficking and stolen property. However, using the law to tackle the disputed origin of artworks, like with the Thai lintels, is a complicated undertaking.

More important, said Shorofsky, is that museums are “proactive” in charting the trading histories of artworks and returning items that are found to have been illegally acquired. “Museums have a ridiculous amount of works, and even with the smaller museums, it’s easy to not keep up with absolutely everything,” she said.

Shorofsky brings up the example of Nazi-looted art, many pieces of which are still being discovered at museums around the world.

“The fact remains that there are still things that are found in institutions that may have questionable provenance,” or places of origin, she said. “Would it be ideal for museums to do it proactively? Definitely.”

Mintz said the Asian Art Museum is doing just that by crafting exhibits that invite visitors to read and learn about historical research. Provenance is a gateway to exploring topics like migration, colonization and nation-building. When one group migrates, it can leave behind — or take along — artworks, he explained. Changing borders also can complicate an antiquity’s nation of origin. Take the Benin Bronzes, for example — sculptures looted by European colonizers from the Kingdom of Benin, in modern-day southern Nigeria. Some are being returned to Nigeria, which absorbed the Kingdom of Benin.

The Asian Art Museum’s website soon will be updated with detailed information, or what is known, about all the antiquities’ origins, said Mintz. Artworks’ histories are becoming central to the museum’s exhibits, too. A recent exhibition, “Lost at Sea,” focused on the trading pathways of 12th-century stone reliefs and 15th-century ceramics originally from Vietnam, for example. Additionally, a cross-departmental “Re-History” team of museum employees works with communities whose cultures are represented in the collection to decide how to tell the art-driven narratives.

“Examining the record, asking hard questions, and updating the story are what a museum does,” said Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu.

The record for many antiquities may be murky for quite some time. More clear is the art world’s response to pressure to reveal the provenance of artworks and consider repatriation.

“We are following the trends, actively,” said Mintz. “As a result, I think we’re producing exhibitions that lead, in the sense that they explore new territory that other museums haven’t quite gotten to yet.”

virwin@sfexaminer.com

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