How artefacts linked to indicted dealer ended up in Australian galleries

Pandora papers shed new light on dealings of alleged antiquities smuggler Douglas Latchford

In 2017, Douglas Latchford was under pressure. Once feted by the Cambodian government and acclaimed as an international authority on south-east Asian antiquities, the Thai-based collector was now the subject of an investigation in the US for allegedly smuggling artefacts on a grand scale.

With his reputation under scrutiny, Latchford continued to discuss the sale and exchange of antiquities with dealers around the world, including a little-known gallery based in Sydney. He was ultimately indicted by the New York district attorney in 2019 on charges of smuggling and falsification of records, but died in August 2020 before going to trial.

Now the hunt is on by US and Cambodian authorities to find, investigate and, if possible, repatriate hundreds of items Latchford sold, often via dealers, to collectors and major galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia.

Clouds began to gather around Latchford as early as 2013, when first Sotheby’s and then New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return works obtained via Latchford to their country of origin.

The 2019 indictment alleged that Latchford, AKA Pakpong Kriangsak, engaged in an elaborate scheme to falsify the provenance of artefacts he was selling and evade American laws that gave teeth to international treaties intended to prevent the export of ancient cultural artefacts.

From about 2000 to about 2012, Latchford “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market”, the indictment said. He allegedly created false documentation misrepresenting the prior ownership of the antiquities to conceal that they were “the product of looting, unauthorized excavation, and illicit smuggling”.

In 1970 a landmark Unesco convention on the protection of cultural property came into force, prohibiting the illicit export and trade of artefacts from religious and cultural sites after that date.

Bradley Gordon, a lawyer acting for the Cambodian culture ministry, said a huge number of items were potentially involved, not just those linked to Latchford.

“Our approach is that all of the sacred statues and other antiquities from the Angkor and pre-Angkor period that have been taken out from Cambodia, particularly since 1970, have been removed illegally,” he said. “We are tracking the ownership and provenance of Khmer antiquities worldwide, and we are calling for the return of all of them that are not properly owned and provenanced.”

An ‘extraordinary’ Cham bronze trio

The Pandora papers, a collection of millions of documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have revealed new details of how Latchford allegedly used offshore trusts to squirrel away millions from the trade in mainly Khmer artefacts. But Cambodian and other authorities in south-east Asia are less concerned with where the money went and more interested in how to recover the artefacts.

In February, to much fanfare, Latchford’s daughter, Julia Latchford – also known as Nawapan Kriangsak – handed more than 100 items, which made up her father’s extensive collection of Khmer artefacts, to the Cambodian government. But many others linked to him remain in galleries around the world. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and the Art Gallery of NSW are among those that have faced questions about the provenance of works they hold.

The problems for the NGA go back to the 1980s when it rapidly expanded its south-east Asian collection. To date, most attention has focused on items it purchased from a New York dealer, Subhash Kapoor, and his gallery, Art of the Past. These included a 600-year-old bronze dancing Shiva, which was the centrepiece of the NGA’s collection. It was allegedly stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, and was returned by the Australian government in 2014.

Kapoor is under indictment in New York, accused of operating a smuggling ring of thousands of looted antiquities over 30 years. He denies the charges. The allegations against him prompted a 2015 review by the former Australian high court judge Susan Crennan, which raised more questions about many pieces in the NGA.

Among those Crennan found had a “problematic” provenance was a ninth-century Cham bronze trio believed to have been looted and sold via Douglas Latchford. When it was bought by the gallery for $US1.5m in 2011, the 50cm-tall bronze Padmapani and two smaller attendants was described by the NGA’s director at the time, Ron Radford, as “perhaps the most extraordinary work acquired this year”.

After years of investigation, the NGA is on the verge of returning the trio. “These works are the subject of a significant live investigation which is nearing its conclusion,” a spokesperson for the gallery said.

The NGA has confirmed that at least the main figure in the trio, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, has links to Latchford. The gallery is attempting to confirm which temple it came from and to determine which country it should be returned to, as the Cham kingdom spanned parts of modern Vietnam as well as Cambodia.

Cham people, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani with attendants, 9th-10th century
The NGA has confirmed that at least the main figure in the Cham bronze trio has links to Latchford. Photograph: National Gallery of Australia

The Art Gallery of NSW told the Guardian there were no records of works in the gallery’s collection with provenance histories, or other references, relating to Latchford. Nonetheless, the provenance of many items in its south-east Asian collection is under investigation.

The gallery has more than 80 items bequeathed from the estate of Alex Biancardi, a former Australian textile merchant and prolific south-east Asian art collector who lived between Sydney and London. He died in 2000.

Biancardi bought several items in his collection from an auction house in London that the US indictment identified as one of the avenues used by Latchford to sell Cambodian antiquities.

The gallery said all objects in the collection from the estate of Biancardi were being assessed and their status considered as part of the gallery’s wider commitment to provenance research.

The gallery’s director, Michael Brand, said in a statement it was assessing the provenance of many items as part of its broad commitment to act in a manner that did not “validate, endorse or provide an incentive for the illegal or unethical trade in cultural property”.

“The art gallery makes every effort to ensure it acquires and borrows works of art for which provenance has been established or which are judged to have a secure history.”

The Gandhara gallery

The lawyers working for the Cambodian ministry of culture say they are also interested in tracing artefacts from Latchford that may have ended up in private collections. Some may have passed through Australian hands.

Until recently, an online gallery run from a nondescript Sydney terrace featured four items whose provenance was listed as “ex Douglas Latchford collection”.

The Gandhara gallery described itself as operating in Sydney and Bangkok and said on its website it offered “museum quality” south-east Asian works of art “with a strong representation from Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia”.

Among the items listed on Gandhara’s page on an Asian art website was a bronze Khmer figure of Lakshmi from Cambodia, dating from the 12th century, which the website said was referred to in Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past by Douglas Latchford and Emma C Bunker.

That publication was one of three by Latchford and Bunker that the US indictment against Latchford alleged he used to bolster the provenance of sculptures that US authorities alleged had been illegally exported from Cambodia. Gordon said the antiquities his team were investigating included all those featured in the three books.

The other works attributed to the Latchford collection listed by Gandhara were “a bronze gild figure of a female deity” from Angkor Wat, dating from the 12th century; a “fragment of a female Prajnaparamita” from the 10th century; and a “bronze Khmer triad in early Angkor Wat style” from the 12th century.

There is no evidence to suggest the works were looted, but their origin with Latchford means they are of potential interest to investigators seeking to establish provenances.

The man who ran Gandhara, Andrew Tompkins, told the Guardian he had advertised the four artefacts “maybe eight years, or 10 years” ago but had never had them in his possession and had not ultimately sold them. He said he had offered to sell them on behalf of a gallery in Bangkok, which had given him permission to post the photos.

The owner of the Thai gallery confirmed that Tompkins had requested the photos and that the items were owned by Latchford.

‘I am a nobody’

The Guardian has seen emails between Tompkins and Latchford dated between 2017 and 2018 in which the two discuss numerous potential deals. However, it is not clear from the emails whether the deals happened or what became of the artefacts.

Tompkins said he was not aware of the claims against Latchford at the time he was corresponding with him and there is no suggestion he had any reason to doubt the provenance of the works they discussed. However, the emails suggest Latchford was trading extensively with private collectors in the years before his death.

In an email exchange from November 2017, Tompkins offered to broker a deal between Latchford and an unnamed third party under which Latchford would swap the works for diamonds and perhaps some cash.

The pair discussed a ninth-century Angkor Borei stone and a bronze dakini with a snake in her right hand. “I would value this piece [the dakini] at around $150k to $180k,” Latchford wrote. “Its probably the finest I have ever seen.”

Tompkins sent pictures of diamonds, one 2 carat and the other 1.79 carat, and their certificates. “[The third party] needs $ for diamonds as its his main line of business and he buys rough from Africa,” Tompkins explained in one email.

Latchford said he could not provide cash because “a so-called friend? of 10+ years has let me down very badly”. Instead, over the next few days they discussed trading the dakini, a head of Durga and other artefacts from Latchford’s collection.

Another email from April 2018 had attached two undated documents recording the transfer of a ninth-century sandstone standing Buddha from Angkor Borei in Cambodia from Latchford to Tompkins, and of a 12th-century bronze reclining Vishnu from the Pala period from Tompkins to Latchford.

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In another email from June 2017, headed “Margarita Time”, Latchford sent photos of Tompkins and others at what appears to be a drinks gathering at Latchford’s apartment, with numerous fine Khmer artefacts visible in the background. In another, from August 2018, Latchford invited Tompkins to dinner.

Asked about his relationship with Latchford, Tompkins said he “didn’t know him that well”. “I met him in a group of people, at one time,” Tompkins said.

“I had no idea of the extent of all these claims against him. His books are interesting, the Cambodian government thought they were so interesting that they gave him a knighthood. What was right at one time, is now wrong. From what I have read he was doing this in the 60s. It was perfectly fine then.”

Tompkins said the Gandhara gallery was only a hobby, which had not traded for several years, and the items he sold were “tiny” compared with some of the objects Latchford had offered for sale. The Gandhara website was removed shortly after the Guardian contacted Tompkins.

“The items I was given – or rather that the gallery said I could show pictures of them – were not really valuable pieces. They are just small portable bronzes. There is nothing really of any substance there if you compare them to the things in the Met or the Cambodian museum,” he said.

“I am a nobody, I am a tiny little person who did something as a hobby.”


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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