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Antiquities Dispute: After Italy Now Southeast Asian Countries Seek Return of Stolen Artifacts from The States

Officials from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have embarked on a mission to reclaim cultural heritage items that they allege were stolen from heritage sites and ancient temples in Southeast Asia. The focus of their efforts is the Denver Art Museum (DAM), which has come under scrutiny for housing artifacts with contested origins. This controversy sheds light on the larger issue of repatriation and the ethical responsibilities of museums in preserving cultural heritage.

Letters of Inquiry Ignored

Government representatives from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam took action in May and June, addressing letters to the Denver Art Museum through US investigators. The letters detailed concerns about eight antiquities exhibited at the museum and the apparent absence of legal export permits for these items. Unfortunately, the museum did not offer a response to these inquiries, which has further fueled the debate surrounding the provenance of the artifacts.

Dubious Donations and Missing Provenance

Six out of the eight disputed items were donated to the DAM by Emma C. Bunker, an art scholar and former museum trustee. These donations have now become the center of the dispute due to their murky origins. While one piece, a 19th-century gilded bronze Buddha, came with some provenance information, its path to the museum is still shrouded in uncertainty. Bunker claimed to have purchased the Buddha from London art dealer Jonathan Tucker in 2012, but Tucker failed to provide substantial information about the piece’s history.

The Latchford Connection

The late Emma C. Bunker shared a close association with Douglas Latchford, a dealer and art collector who has been linked to the trafficking of looted items. The collaboration between Bunker and Latchford has been implicated in a trafficking operation spanning decades, aimed at legitimizing Khmer antiquities. This operation involved forging signatures necessary for the import and sale of artifacts, writing books that lent credibility to Latchford’s objects, and personally vouching for items with falsified provenance documents. Latchford’s connection to the Denver Art Museum was described as using the institution to “clean” his reputation for other pieces.

Museum’s Response and Repatriation Efforts

In the aftermath of revelations about the origins of certain items, the Denver Art Museum has taken steps to address the issue. The museum has returned some of the looted items and removed Emma C. Bunker’s name from a gallery wall. It also returned a donation of $185,000 that Bunker and her family had contributed as part of a naming agreement. Furthermore, the museum ended an Asian art acquisition fund established in Bunker’s honor following her passing in 2021.

Despite these actions, the DAM still holds over 200 artifacts from Bunker’s collection, prompting countries like Thailand and Vietnam to demand their return. Among the contested items are a 2,000-year-old bronze dagger adorned with a standing human figure and a 12th-century Buddha.

The Bunker Gallery, featuring Southeast Asian art, in the Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building. The name was removed in March, 2023 after an investigation by the Denver Post. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post) DENVER POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

US Government Investigation and Museum’s Cooperation

The US Department of Homeland Security has been actively investigating the origins of the Southeast Asian artifacts since the previous year. The museum’s spokesperson, Kristy Bassuener, affirmed that the DAM has cooperated with the US government, providing all requested materials. Bassuener also stated that the museum is committed to working with authorities to facilitate the return of five deaccessioned pieces to their countries of origin.


The ongoing dispute between Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Denver Art Museum underscores the complex nature of preserving cultural heritage and the importance of addressing the provenance of artifacts. This incident serves as a reminder of the ethical responsibilities museums bear in ensuring the integrity of their collections and working towards the repatriation of items with contested origins.

Feature Image: This bronze dagger from Vietnam, gifted by Emma Bunker, is no longer on display at the Denver Art Museum after its return was sought by the Vietnamese government. PHOTO BY HYOUNG CHANG/THE DENVER POST

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