Recently, it’s become more apparent that our museums and other institutional collections are overrun with looted antiquities and cultural objects of unknown provenance. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan came under increased scrutiny this year following the publication of two damning reports: The first, by ProPublica, shed light on the museum’s unsatisfactory provenance information for 85% of objects from a particular collection of Native American art; the second, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, discovered that approximately 1,000 objects from the museum’s collection were linked to individuals or groups accused or convicted of trafficking antiquities from abroad.
In light of the Douglas Latchford estate’s $12M settlement and repatriation of a Vietnamese statue of Hindu goddess Durga earlier this summer — the most significant forfeiture of looted antiquities profits to date — we decided to take a closer look at three of the most notorious antiquities traffickers, starting with none other than Latchford himself.
Douglas Latchford was a British art dealer who had his hands deep in the pockets of the illicit trade market for Khmer antiquities for over 50 years. Born in Mumbai during the British Raj and educated in England, Latchford moved to Thailand for work in pharmaceutical distribution during the late 1950s, where he was introduced to Khmer art. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, Latchford amassed his own collection of Khmer antiquities at low prices from antique shops and markets before capitalizing on the civil war in Cambodia that began in 1967.
Fashioning himself as a cultural preservationist rather than an opportunistic pilferer, Latchford knowingly purchased looted statues and stones from ancient sites of worship, including several temples in Koh Ker, across the upheaved nation undergoing genocide by the Khmer Rouge. He began selling them internationally during the 1970s. Outside of his steady stream of private collectors, Latchford collaborated with Martin Lerner, former curator of South and Southeast Asian art at The Met, and provided the museum’s collection with at least 33 objects looted from Cambodia. Things fell apart for the collector in 2007 when his co-written book with Emma Bunker connected part of a long-lost statue he had sold to a Californian museum to the remaining pedestal left behind at the Koh Ker temple in Cambodia.
Latchford’s reign as a Khmer antiquities expert began to unravel rapidly by 2011 when he was linked to another trafficked statue from a Koh Ker temple that was set to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s, prompting the Cambodian government to intervene. While hundreds of looted artifacts sold or gifted by Latchford have since been forfeited and repatriated to Cambodia, museums across the world still hold Khmer objects associated with the late dealer in their collections.
Subhash Kapoor, an Indian art dealer who made a fortune on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue through looted South and Southeast Asian cultural artifacts, was recently hit with a 10-year prison sentence in India for the looting and illegal export of 19 antique idols from a Tamil Nadu temple in 2000. Referred to as “one of the most prolific smugglers in the world,” Kapoor opened his gallery, Art of the Past, in 1974, but reportedly became involved in a group trafficking operation in 1986. Through Art of the Past, Kapoor began supplying Asian antiquities to museums and collectors across the nation and internationally, earning him a reputation as a widely respected art dealer and expert in religious antiquities. On the other side of the world, Kapoor and his affiliates were coordinating with local gangs across India to access priceless artifacts, prevent locals from intervening, and throwing customs officials off-track with made-up histories surrounding the exported idols.
It was a 2008 police report from the Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district, the very temple Kapoor’s looting operations targeted in 2000, that spawned the dealer’s fall from grace. The Indian government flagged Kapoor and his operations internationally, and the dealer was found and detained by Interpol at the Cologne Airport in Germany in 2011 before he was extradited to Chennai, India. Kapoor awaited trial for his crimes for nearly a decade, and it was later revealed via “Operation Hidden Idol” that the dealer had facilitated the looting and export of over 2,600 cultural and religious objects from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and several other nations valued at a collective $143 million.
Earlier this year, The Met repatriated 15 objects from its collection that were associated with Kapoor back to India. The Yale University Art Gallery had 13 objects provided by Kapoor seized and repatriated in 2022, and approximately 250 objects linked to Kapoor’s dealings were repatriated from the United States in 2021.
Switching gears to European antiquity trafficking, convicted Italian smuggler Giacomo Medici began dealing antiquities in Rome during the 1960s. In 1967, Medici had been introduced to American art dealer Robert E. Hecht and began supplying him with a large amount of European and Mediterranean antiquities before opening up his Roman gallery, Antiquaria Romana, and exploring business operations in Switzerland a year later. In 1971, Medici reportedly purchased the looted Euphronios krater (c. 515 BCE), a large, ancient Greek ceramic vessel for diluting wine with water, from tomb raiders who allegedly excavated it from the Etruscan necropolises in Cerveteri. Medici sold the krater to Hecht, who had it restored in Zurich before selling it to The Met for a whopping $1M in 1972, despite holes in the provenance (a non-issue to then-museum director Thomas Hoving). In 1973, the New York Times produced a series of reports investigating the provenance holes of the acquired krater, but the Italian government could not come up with proof of its origin.
Medici closed up shop in Rome and entered a business partnership with Genevan resident Christian Boursaud in 1978. The pair became the most prevalent suppliers for consignment at Sotheby’s London throughout the 1980s and decided to open up Hydra Gallery together in 1983. It was through Hydra Gallery that Medici orchestrated the sale of the remaining fragments of the Onesimos kylix (c. 490 BCE) to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1985, providing falsified provenance through the Zbinden collection that he sometimes used for Sotheby’s London as well. Medici eventually went solo again and began consigning and repurchasing looted antiquities through “front companies” to increase demand and market value.
However, the jig was up in 1995 when Sotheby’s London advertised a sarcophagus for auction that the Italian police had recognized as stolen from the church of San Saba in Rome. This, coupled with the unearthing of a hand-drawn diagram highlighting Medici as the point person for illegal artifact trade to Hecht, led the Italian police to investigate Medici’s Geneva storage spaces. Medici was arrested in 1997, and a total inventory of his Geneva storerooms showed that he was in possession of nearly 4,000 antiquities and photos of them in various stages of restoration along with thousands of documents pertaining to his transactions and connections. The Getty repatriated the kylix fragments to Italy in 1999, four years before Medici’s trial began. In 2005, Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay €10 million in damages to the Italian Ministry for the receipt of, illegal export, and trafficking of stolen goods. The Met eventually repatriated the krater in 2008.