An art dealer’s prosecution casts a long shadow

In a criminal complaint filed in New York State Court last December, charges were brought against a New York Gallery owner, Nancy Wiener for dealing in stolen property. When examining a complaint, special care should be taken that they are by nature one-sided accounts that are only allegations, in this case the allegations are made by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos.

In the New York Times yesterday, Ralph Blumenthal and Tom Mashberg reveal the identity of two anonymous alleged co-conspirators from the complaint:

Over the course of a 30-year friendship, Emma C. Bunker, 87, and Douglas A. J. Latchford, 86, became authorities on Southeast Asian antiquities whose approval could ensure an object’s value and legitimacy. Together they wrote three seminal volumes — “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes” — that are core reference works for other experts.

The books contain letters of tribute from Cambodian officials who applaud the pair’s dedicated research and support for the national museum in Phnom Penh. In particular, they hail Mr. Latchford, who has donated rare artifacts and money to the museum, acts of generosity that led the government to knight him in 2008.

But in a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney last December in New York, Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker are identified less respectfully — as Co-Conspirator No. 1 and Co-Conspirator No. 2.

The complaint says that over a period of years the co-conspirators and others helped a prominent New York gallery owner, Nancy Wiener, falsify the documentary history of looted Cambodian relics, making them easier to market.

Here’s what is alleged in the complaint:

In November 2011, Co-Conspirator #1 sold Defendant for $500,000 a stolen bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia, dated to the 10th Century C.E., 17.75 inches high, depicting Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia, dated to the 10th Century C.E., 17.75 inches high, depicting Buddha sitting on a throne of Naga (snake), with a market value of $1,500,000. Exhibit B. According to informant #2, the Naga Buddha came from the Khmer Empire-present-day Cambodia and parts of Thailand.

According to seized emails, Defendant had earlier begun falsifying the Naga Buddha’s provenance with Co-Conspirator #1 and Co-Conspirator #2 (who works as a research consultant for an American museum) by arranging for a photograph of the Naga Buddha to be published in a 2011 book. In my experience, and according to informants #1 and #2, publishing a photograph of a looted antiquity is a common laundering practice. In another email, Co-Conspirator #2 wrote that she had “changed” the provenance “a bit,” asking Co-Conspirator #1 if the changes were “okay.” Co-Conspirator #1 then emailed Defendant, seeking her approval. In another email, Co-Conspirator #1 told Defendant that he typically gave Co-Conspirator #2 bronze statues in exchange for false letters of provenance.

In January 2016, Defendant shipped the Naga Buddha to a New York-based restorer (“Co-Conspirator #3”) for restoration, stating its value to be $850,000. In February 2016, Co-Conspirator #3 emailed Defendant a bill for the restoration, noting that the Naga Buddha appeared to have been struck by an agricultural tool, resulting in a jagged break-a sign of looting. Defendant displayed the Naga Buddha for sale for $1,500,000 in the Nancy Wiener Gallery until Deponent seized it pursuant to a warrant in March 2016.

So taking these allegations as true, Latchford sold a bronze statue to Nancy Wiener, and Bunker arranged to have a photograph appear in a published book. On their face those allegations are thin, which is why Mashberg and Blumenthal also connect Latchford and Bunker to the 2011 return of this sculpture, likely from Koh Ker in Cambodia. Latchford had been an earlier owner of that object, and Bunker had advised Sotheby’s about the sale.

This reporting offers an important step in connecting collector and scholar to the trade in antiquities. As Neil Brodie rightly points out in the piece: “The market couldn’t function without these people”. Yet there are some warning signs with respect to the Wiener prosecution. It seems odd that the State prosecution would proceed absent a federal prosecution—after all the investigator was a federal agent, Brenton Easter. If there was a strong case here against Wiener, why wasn’t there a federal prosecution? I know Matthew Bogdanos has stated publicly his longstanding desire to secure prosecutions of dealers of illicit antiquities. So perhaps he was able to convince Federal prosecutors to let him take charge of the case.

Prosecutors in the case are also smartly building a case for conspiracy to handle stolen goods, the offense that ultimately secured a conviction for another Manhattan art dealer, Fred Schultz. It may be more difficult to establish the underlying offense of theft where the objects at issue may have originated either in Cambodia or Thailand. That imprecision is the kind of allegation a good criminal defense will surely attack. Showing a pattern of behavior to disguise the history of an object will likely make it easier to establish the elements for conspiracy.

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Expert Opinion or Elaborate Ruse? Scrutiny for Scholars’ Role in Art Sales, The New York Times, March 30, 2017.

1 thought on “An art dealer’s prosecution casts a long shadow”

  1. Mr. Fincham;
    As you may know, the decision to seek criminal prosecution at the state versus the federal level may be one of merely seeking a better avenue to success. The burden of proof is less at the state level; seeking to prove that a person should have had the knowledge or belief that an item was stolen as opposed to the actual knowledge that the item was indeed stolen, at the federal level. Also, a value of $5000.(USD) is required in order to bring cases forward at the federal level, whereby the state can prosecute below that level with the value determining the degree of the charge. See: https://theantiquitiescoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/PolicyBrief1.pdf. (Rick St.Hilaire, Note 23)

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