BURIRAM PROVINCE, Thailand — The villagers dug through the night — hoping, praying, dreaming to find a bronze statue that could make them rich.
For two years in the mid-1960s, the ground surrounding the 1,000-year-old Plai Bat II temple near the Cambodian border became an excavation zone, a looting mecca.
Virtually everyone in the village took part, said Satien Rojanabundit, a local who was just a boy at the time. Families brought their children to the temple site, hauling cooking utensils and baby carriages as men dredged the hidden vaults for treasures.
When these impoverished rice farmers found a large piece, multiple villagers told The Denver Post, that meant a burgeoning collector named Douglas Latchford would return to the village to see it with his own eyes — and hand out wads of cash.
“Latchford was the man who’d buy pretty much everything,” Rojanabundit said through an interpreter from his house near the temple, recalling how his father made a fortune helping the businessman package and ship statues via train to Bangkok. “Everyone knew you could sell anything to him and he’d give you lots of money.”
Latchford, who died in 2020, came to dominate the Southeast Asian art trade over the next half-century. But he later would be accused by American authorities of selling plundered works to wealthy collectors and prominent institutions like the Denver Art Museum.
What became known as the Prakhon Chai bronzes, discovered at Plai Bat II, might have been his first heist.
In the third installment of a three-part investigation, The Denver Post reveals the little-known story of how these prized Thai relics made their way from the hands of villagers to galleries in the Denver Art Museum and other foreign collections — and the role a Colorado art scholar, Emma C. Bunker, played in helping sanitize Latchford’s looted collection as it was sold on the open market.
The Post’s year-long project — featuring on-the-ground reporting in Southeast Asia, dozens of interviews and a review of previously unreported emails — examines the various crucial players that support the illicit international antiquities trade.
The U.S. government is investigating three Thai pieces in Denver’s museum, including two Prakhon Chai statues and another relic from Bunker, as the Southeast Asian nation moves to reclaim its looted history.
“Anything that comes from Prakhon Chai, anything that comes from Plai Bat II, is illegal with clearly no provenance,” said Tanongsak Hanwong, an archaeologist and member of Thailand’s committee on repatriation of stolen artifacts, through an interpreter. “There is not a single Prakhon Chai statue that is on display in Thai museums. These pieces are all in U.S. museums and other museums around the world.”
While past attention from prosecutors and journalists has centered on Latchford’s illicit scheme in Cambodia, The Post’s investigation shows that Thailand suffered from much of the same cultural plundering.
“It’s in nobody’s interest to think very hard about the source of objects that everyone is enjoying and people are profiting from,” said Erin Thompson, an art crime professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Bunker’s role in what’s now known as the Prakhon Chai hoard is also deeply suspicious, art crime experts say, given her close association with Latchford and her history of using articles and books to validate his stolen relics.
She wrote multiple articles on the subject, including pegging the Thai treasures to their precise location at the Plai Bat II temple when everyone believed they had come from Prakhon Chai, a nearby region. Bunker, who died last year in Denver at 90, and her husband also owned at least one of these bronzes, which the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art says sits in its collection in Washington, D.C.
Bunker’s accounting of Prakhon Chai statues is now being used as a critical resource for Thai officials scanning the globe for the nation’s ancient relics. And her articles, beginning in the early 1970s, set the stage for a lengthy career writing scholarly works that promoted Latchford’s plundered collection.
“It became their modus operandi,” said Angela Chiu, an independent art scholar who has researched the Asian art trade. “It’s all about legitimizing his looted objects.”
Three of Bunker’s surviving children declined to comment or did not respond to The Post for this series. Harriet Bunker, one of Emma’s daughters, said the allegations against her mother did not align with the woman she knew and loved.
A Latchford family representative declined to comment for the series.
Unearthing a hidden history
It all started as an accident.
Legend has it that villagers, perhaps tending to cattle, stumbled upon a secret vault in the early 1960s near the crumbling temple, which had been built in 895 by King Ishanavarman II.
It’s there they found these unique bronze statues, ranging in height from 3 inches to more than 3 feet tall, encrusted with obsidian gemstones and silver plates. They depicted a range of major Buddhist gods, including Maitreya, Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara and Gautama.
The statues likely were brought to the area more than a thousand years prior, Hanwong said. They may have been buried in the underground vault in an attempt to undermine Buddhist influence in the region, he said, or to hide them from invaders.
The villagers, shocked by their discovery, didn’t know how to sell their newfound goods.
In came a man known as Boonlerd, a Bangkok buyer. Dazzled by the bronzes, Boonlerd shared the news with Latchford.
The pieces were so beautiful, the businessman had to see them with his own eyes.
“Latchford was hooked,” Rojanabundit said.
Over the next year, the aspiring Bangkok collector returned over and over to the village, Baan Yai, and to see Plai Bat II, Rojanabundit said. He remembers Latchford as a friendly white man with a bit of a tummy and a good sense of humor, always doling out money to villagers.
Every time Latchford came to town, he’d hand the boy 100 or 500 baht (worth as much as $229 today) — mind-boggling sums for a child.
“Latchford created a good economy for the village,” Rojanabundit said.
Boonlerd and Latchford set up an office at Rojanabundit’s father’s house, turning the two-story home with faded red paint into a bustling antiquities marketplace. Boonlerd was the more consistent presence, Rojanabundit said, but Latchford would eagerly return when someone dug up a big piece.
Knowing the collector paid top dollar, the villagers just kept digging.
“Latchford had no limit,” Rojanabundit said. “Anything they could find, he would buy.”
Soin Chansri recalled hurrying to the temple after school, bringing rice for his father. The villagers dug in teams throughout the night, knowing they found a chamber when they heard a hollow sound emanate from the hole.
“Everything was so good at the looting site,” Chansri said through an interpreter, standing atop the very ground on which his father used to dig nearly half a century ago. “You could spend all your time there.”
Villagers who took part in the looting say they remember every piece they found at the Plai Bat II temple. Every one would have to be carefully cleaned and washed, with bronzes being the most valuable, followed by stone.
Samak Promrak was in his mid-20s when he started digging for statues. He said he remembers the largest piece he ever unearthed — a 56-inch Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that’s now prominently displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rojanabundit said his father Singto was in charge of packing the statues — 20 or 30 at a time — in secure boxes to be shipped by train to Bangkok, labeling them as mechanical objects to avoid suspicion.
In a poverty-stricken region, Latchford’s money wasn’t just nice to have. It was life-changing.
“The hardship was really bad,” Rojanabundit said, explaining that poor villagers who couldn’t afford rice would dig for tapioca in the ground. “So anything that could generate money, people would go for without hesitation.”
Most people in the area were rice farmers. In 1965, 1 kilogram of Jasmine rice sold for 2 baht, or about 10 U.S. cents.
But if you found a big relic at Plai Bat II? That could net you 100,000 baht — worth more than $46,000 in today’s currency, when adjusted for inflation. Even the smaller bronzes could fetch two or three thousand baht, worth as much as $1,375 today.
Rojanabundit’s father made so much money working with Boonlerd and Latchford that he could afford a Jeep — a luxury unheard of for someone of his stature.
“Even the police were asking to use his Jeep,” Rojanabundit said with a grin. His father bought land with Latchford’s money. He built a house.
Sitting on a mattress on the floor of his home during an August interview, Rojanabundit turned to point to photos of his children hanging behind him on the wall, dressed in flowy blue gowns, bouquets of flowers in hand.
“My children all have university degrees,” he said proudly.
By 1966, after two years of looting, the Plai Bat II temple had little left to take. The secret vaults were barren. But Latchford, up until his death, continued to visit once a year, Rojanabundit said.
“He loved to be in this village,” Rojanabundit said.
An avid fan of bodybuilding, Latchford even brought some Thai musclemen on occasion to see the temple, Rojanabundit said. The athletes would also hand out money to locals.
Those who took part in the looting say it’s hard to look back with regret.
“I never thought anything like that,” Rojanabundit said. “We just wanted to get money for our family.”
He paused. Rojanabundit does regret it a little — not the looting, he said, but the fact that these items are worth 200 times what Boonlerd and Latchford paid the villagers.
After Promrak, now 81, sold some of the large statues, locals called him a “small millionaire.” But the guilt gnawed at him, so he said he donated some of the money to a local Buddhist temple — an act known as “making merit.”
“I felt I had no choice,” Promrak said of the looting, his hand shaking slightly. Even decades later, he can still draw maps of the underground vaults at Plai Bat II. “I had to do it.”
Honing in on Prakhon Chai
In 1965, a year after the startling discovery at Plai Bat II, news of the Prakhon Chai relics appeared in a brief article in the Illustrated London News.
The piece, which includes details later determined to be inaccurate, touted a “startling discovery” by Cambodian villagers of “superb Khmer statues” from the seventh century of a “type which has hitherto been unknown.”
There were photos of three statues, acquired and put on display by Spink & Son, the longstanding London auction house.
The statues became known as the “Prakhon Chai hoard,” an archaeological term for artifacts buried in the ground. Where exactly this hoard ended up, however, remained a mystery.
Enter Emma Bunker.
The Colorado art scholar, who spent decades with the Denver Art Museum and Colorado College, had become a well-known authority on Chinese and Central Asian art.
Up until that point, she hadn’t written about Southeast Asia. But in a 1972 magazine article, Bunker for the first time told the world where many of these statues could be found.
The Denver Art Museum, she wrote, held six of these pieces. Bunker and her husband, John, owned one themselves, while others were displayed in collections from San Francisco to Philadelphia.
Bunker also included three photos of the temple where the hoard was discovered, pictures she later wrote were “supplied by a knowledgeable friend.”
For decades, little else came out about Prakhon Chai. But 30 years after her initial article, Bunker published a follow-up piece out of the blue. She identified, correctly, that these statues came from the Plai Bat II temple, not the Prakhon Chai region.
These prized relics, she wrote in 2002, “have the distinction of being among the most misunderstood objects in Southeast Asian art history.”
She also included an updated accounting for where these statues were located, “reconstructed with the help of information from friends in the international art world.”
One statue in the piece is attributed to Latchford, Bunker’s close friend and collaborator. A second is credited to the Fleetwing Collection, which industry watchers believe to be Latchford’s as well. (He owned a company called Fleetwing Estates Ltd., according to the “Pandora Papers” investigation.)
And Latchford is the first person thanked in the acknowledgments at the end of the article. This piece, she wrote, “could not have been written without (his) advice and encouragement.”
Art scholars and Thai officials wonder, though, just how Bunker’s scholarship came about. Why, after years of writing exclusively about Central Asian and Chinese art, did she suddenly wade into Thai antiquities? How did she know to look at the Plai Bat II temple?
“Spink, Emma Bunker and Douglas Latchford — there’s something wrong with this picture,” said Chiu, the independent art scholar.
Latchford used Spink & Son repeatedly throughout the decades to sell looted goods, American investigators and Cambodian officials have said.
By now, the Bangkok dealer’s history of selling plundered antiquities has been well-documented. But this foray into northeast Thailand “might have been Latchford’s first big heist,” said Bradley J. Gordon, an attorney leading Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim its pillaged history.
Gordon, an American working in Phnom Penh, may know more about Latchford’s life than anyone outside his immediate family. After the Bangkok dealer’s death, his daughter gave the Cambodians correspondence, a gesture of goodwill that has helped the Southeast Asian nation reclaim scores of historic artifacts.
It’s not clear when Latchford and Bunker initially met. The Colorado scholar once said they were first introduced in 1978 at Spink & Son in London and went to a party.
But Hiram Woodward, a former Baltimore museum curator and friend of Bunker’s, said she told him that she knew Latchford prior to her 1972 article about Prakhon Chai.
“He was connected, yes, with her interest and knowledge of the site,” Woodward said.
Ashley Thompson, a specialist in Southeast Asian art history at SOAS University of London, said the 1972 article “was clearly in cahoots” with Latchford.
“There’s no way that she wrote that piece and they didn’t know each other,” Thompson said. “If she said ’78, she was trying to cover the connection.”
It’s also uncertain when or how many times Bunker visited the temple or the nearby villages. Locals told The Post that while they remembered Latchford and his frequent trips, they couldn’t recall Bunker.
In her 2002 article, Bunker said she recently had visited Thailand to see the temple with her own eyes.
Hanwong, the Thai archaeologist, said a villager told him that Bunker and Latchford came together at least once.
The villager, Chuai Mulaka, has since died. But in a 2016 visit before his death, the archaeologist said he showed Mulaka a picture of the two close friends.
“This is Latchford,” Mulaka said, according to Hanwong, pointing to his photo. “And this is Emma Bunker.”
It’s clear, Hanwong said, that the pair were working together.
“She was someone who helped legitimize the Prakhon Chai statues,” he said.
“She was his art historical accomplice”
A big part of this effort, art crime experts say, was the writing of articles and books about the Thai treasures.
“Publishing photographs of looted antiquities is a common laundering practice,” a federal agent wrote in a 2016 criminal complaint for an accused New York gallery owner.
Bunker’s articles checked all the boxes for what the art market needs, said Chiu, the independent Asian art expert. Establishing a distinct “Prakhon Chai” style, setting up a chronology for the pieces, publishing photos and listing owners to create supposed provenance for the pieces.
“The purpose of these articles is really to help enhance the marketing,” she said.
In addition to the two articles, Bunker published several Prakhon Chai objects in her and Latchford’s 2011 book “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past.”
Among the dozens of antiquities included in the book are two bronze statues that are part of the Denver Art Museum’s collection. One, an eighth-century bronze Avalokiteshvara, is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is on Thailand’s repatriation list.
“What you want to do is to have a scholarly backing to objects to give them legitimacy,” Chiu said. “This formalizes them as part of art history as scholarly objects of scholarly study.”
Other Thai statues featured in the glossy coffee-table book: Lokeshvara statues in California’s Norton Simon Museum and Asian Art Museum, and a Maitreya in Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.
Thailand believes all of them were looted, and now wants them back.
“It seems so clear that she was his art historical accomplice,” Thompson said. “And the Prakhon Chai was central to that relationship.”
Cambodian and Thai officials have said Bunker and Latchford’s three books are full of stolen antiquities, and they’ve been using them as treasure maps to help them locate items in private collections and museums across the globe.
Gordon brought the books to show former looters working with the Cambodian government. Page by page, he said, the looters identified items they remembered stealing from Cambodia’s ancient temples.
One book, “Adoration and Glory,” included four relics that Latchford — with Bunker’s assistance — sold or donated to the Denver Art Museum. Those antiquities are now back in Cambodia after federal authorities in the U.S. filed for their forfeiture last year and returned them in August during a repatriation ceremony in New York City.
Thai officials have used Bunker’s articles and books to assemble their list of looted antiquities they hope to get back from international collections — including three from the Denver Art Museum.
The pieces under investigation in the Mile High City include two from the Prakhon Chai hoard: the eighth-century Avalokitesvara, which the museum purchased in 1983, and a standing Buddha, acquired in 1966. Both objects are included in Bunker’s articles.
A third item, a 19th-century gilded bronze standing sculpture of standing Buddha, is also under investigation by U.S. authorities, the museum confirmed. The statue was a gift in 2016 from Bunker.
Emails between Latchford and Bunker, acquired by the Cambodian government and shared with The Post, show the pair venting about renewed interest in Prakhon Chai beginning in late 2017 — even as Latchford continued to sell the statues for significant sums.
Bunker, in one 2018 email, acknowledged to Latchford that the Denver Art Museum had one of these pieces, but “maybe (Thailand) won’t ask for it because it is quite small.”
In other emails, Bunker complained to him that a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art stirred up the Prakhon Chai issue by arranging for a video showcasing one of the museum’s sculptures.
“Really dumb performance,” Bunker wrote.
Latchford later vented in a 2018 message to a British novelist that Bunker, for all her whining, “forgets that she’s the one who pinpointed the exact location (of the Prakhon Chai pieces), ‘til then they were just floating.”
Still, Latchford continued to market Prakhon Chai bronzes for tens of thousands of dollars, using Bunker’s articles in his sales pitches. In one email, titled “PKC Facts,” he described what he claimed was the first piece discovered in the hoard: an 11th-century Buddha under a naga snake.
A dealer, Peng Seng, tried to cut the head off the statue, Latchford said, resulting in a slice mark below the placid face.
Seng was a known collaborator of his, referred to in Latchford’s 2019 federal indictment only as “the Thai dealer.” But unredacted letters, reported by the Australian Broadcasting Company, show Seng helped Latchford fabricate provenance paperwork so his items could be sold on the international market.
And experts say marks like the one on the Buddha’s neck are clear signs of looting. Often, with larger items, looters will remove the head so the relic can more easily be transported.
“Trying to write a new history”
Placing items in museums — through loans, gifts or sales — is also a key strategy for laundering plundered antiquities, experts say.
Latchford liked to tell prospective buyers where similar pieces could be found on display, citing the Met, the Denver Art Museum and other prominent collections. And Bunker gave him a respected voice with institutional backing he could use in the sales pitch.
All three of the Thai pieces in the Denver Art Museum that are under investigation remain part of its collection, a museum spokesperson said, though they’re not on display. None of them, museum officials said, have ties to Latchford.
The Denver Art Museum first responded in October 2020 to an inquiry from the Department of Justice, and then, a year later, from the Department of Homeland Security about the “provenance and return of the three objects,” Andy Sinclair, a museum spokesperson, said in an email. “No one from the Thai government has contacted or expressed an interest to the DAM in the return of these pieces.”
A spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations, in an email, would not comment on the specifics of the Denver items, citing the active investigation. The agency said its San Francisco office is conducting investigations into suspected cultural heritage from Thailand at “various museums throughout the U.S.,” evaluating evidence provided by experts from the Southeast Asian nation.
The Thai committee has not been directly in touch with the Denver Art Museum, Hanwong said. Instead, they’re communicating with an agent from Homeland Security Investigations.
Prakhon Chai statues are still on display or part of the collections in some of America’s most prominent museums, including the Met and Asia Society in New York, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
An eighth-century Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara statue, made of copper alloy and standing 56 inches tall, stands prominently on a pedestal near a doorway in the Met’s Southeast Asian art gallery.
The museum proudly claims the piece to be the largest statue from the Prakhon Chai hoard.
“Modeled in a new and unknown style, the sculptures found near Prakhon Chai in Northeast Thailand opened a new chapter in the history of Southeast Asian art,” an audio description on the museum’s website states.
Another piece in the Met’s collection — an eighth-to-ninth-century standing Bodhisattva Maitreya — was jointly gifted in 1989 by Spink & Son and Latchford.
A Met spokesperson declined to answer questions from The Post, including whether U.S. investigators had been in touch with museum officials about the Prakhon Chai pieces.
None of the museums contacted for this story — aside from the Denver Art Museum — said they had been in touch with American or Thai authorities.
An Asian Art Museum spokesman said three of the museum’s four pieces on Thailand’s repatriation list had been purchased from Spink and added to the museum’s collection in the mid-1960s. The Asia Society acquired one piece from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Collection.
None of the Prakohn Chai statues, however, are in Thailand’s museums. And that’s what motivates Hanwong and others to push for their return.
Last year, with the help of American authorities, the country retrieved two 1,000-year-old sandstone lintels from the Asian Art Museum that had been stolen a half-century ago. One is now prominently displayed in a gallery next to the Phanom Rung temple in northeast Thailand.
Walking around the ancient temple in August, set on the rim of an extinct volcano, Hanwong pointed out missing lintels and pillars that once adorned the holy site — but now sit in international collections. He whipped out his phone to show pictures of the looted goods superimposed onto the temple, proof that these items belonged here.
It’s information that he used to post to Facebook — trying to drum up support — but now sends to American investigators and Thailand’s top government officials.
“He’s really obsessed about this,” said Lalita Hanwong, Tanongsak’s wife and a university history professor.
Retrieving the Prakhon Chai statues, along with the other looted relics, is critical to understanding Thailand’s history and the spread of Buddhism — and could even help forge a stronger relationship with neighboring Cambodia, Tanongsak said.
“We’re trying to write a new history of this era,” he said.
Updated 8:55 a.m. Dec. 2, 2022 This story has been updated to correct inflation-adjusted currency conversions.