Denver Art Museum returns relics from Cambodia, Burma and Tibet

The Denver Art Museum has returned five Asian artworks connected to a pair of disgraced former New York City gallery owners accused of trafficking illicit antiquities.

Museum officials, in a statement posted to its website last week, said it proactively contacted federal authorities in January with a list of pieces linked to Doris and Nancy Wiener, a mother-daughter tandem who for decades operated a prominent gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The sculptures — gifted to the museum between 1980 and 2008 — include three bronze Cambodian pieces from the 12th and 13th centuries, a 14th-century bronze seated Buddha from Burma, and a 600-year-old bronze, silver and turquoise depiction of Padmasambhava, the legendary Indian Buddhist mystic, from Tibet.

RELATED: Looted: Stolen relics, laundered art and a Colorado scholar’s role in the illicit antiquities trade

The museum deaccessioned — or formally removed — the artifacts in July from its collection and returned them to U.S. officials for their eventual repatriation.

The returns come as the Denver Art Museum faces a reckoning over its past collection habits — and the shady dealers who helped fill its glass cases.

Authorities have said Doris Wiener, who died in 2011, took “shopping trips” to South Asia to select stolen antiquities that would later be smuggled into New York. She was a generous benefactor to some of the country’s most prestigious art museums, including the Norton Simon Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 2016, during New York’s famed Asia Week, authorities raided the Wiener gallery, seizing prized relics they said were stolen from Southeast Asian temples. Nancy Wiener was later arrested and charged with buying and selling millions of dollars worth of looted relics from the Middle East and Asia.

She pleaded guilty in 2021 to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property. In remarks before a New York court, Wiener admitted to buying plundered antiquities and fabricating provenance documents, which trace a piece’s ownership history.

“For decades I conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiquities with vague or even no provenance was the norm,” the gallery owner said, according to court transcripts. “Obfuscation and silence were accepted responses to questions concerning the source from which an object had been obtained. In short, it was a conspiracy of the willing.”

Nancy Wiener, who did not respond to inquiries Tuesday, worked closely with another disgraced collector, Douglas Latchford. The Bangkok-based businessman sold numerous stolen pieces to the New York gallery owner, authorities said. He was indicted in 2020 on charges related to trafficking stolen antiquities but died before he could stand trial.

The New York case also illuminated the role of a Colorado scholar in Latchford’s decades-long scheme. Emma C. Bunker, a longtime Denver Art Museum trustee and research consultant, provided Wiener with one of the false provenances cited in the gallery owner’s guilty plea.

Bunker, who died in 2021, served as Latchford’s confidant and respected scholarly voice as he marketed his wares for big money on the international art market. Her connections allowed Latchford to use the Denver Art Museum as a laundromat for looted relics, The Post found in a three-part investigation published last year.

The July returns are not the first time the Denver Art Museum has given back artworks from the Wieners.

Museum officials in 2016 handed back a 10th-century sandstone sculpture — the “Torso of Rama” — to Cambodia after the Southeast Asian nation pressed for its return. The museum acquired the piece in 1986 from the Wiener Gallery. The Cambodians have since said the object originally came from Latchford.

Wiener has been cooperating with law enforcement as they scour the country for other stolen objects.

In October, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office repatriated five antiquities to India that Wiener had trafficked. The following month, the DA’s office returned to Cambodia a seventh-century sandstone statue of a standing Vishnu that had been broken off and looted at the direction of Doris Wiener.

The Denver Art Museum has been steadily returning artifacts to their countries of origin in recent years amid a rapidly changing landscape in the art world.

The museum last summer relinquished four looted Cambodian statues associated with Bunker and Latchford after the U.S. government moved to seize them. In October, the museum handed back 22 pieces connected to another disgraced former New York gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor.

Meanwhile, federal investigators continue to probe the Denver museum’s Southeast Asian art collection, many of which Bunker donated to the museum. Government officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam this spring pressed the museum for the return of their cultural heritage.

Denver Art Museum leaders previously said they would return a host of items that Bunker had donated as part of a now-scrapped agreement that had put her family’s name on the museum’s Southeast Asian wing.

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