Vietnam demands return of stolen artifacts from US museum

By Ha Thu, Quynh Nhu   August 23, 2023 | 05:54 am PT
The Department of Cultural Heritage has requested the Denver Art Museum in the U.S. to return several Vietnamese artifacts that were stolen in the past.
10 artifacts that the FBI returned to Vietnam in 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

10 artifacts that the FBI returned to Vietnam in 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

The governments of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia wrote to the museum in May and June asking about eight artifacts it held without proper export permits, ARTnews magazine reported.

The museum has a collection of over 200 antiquities from various Southeast Asian countries.

The Department of Cultural Heritage has confirmed that it wrote to the museum seeking the repatriation of the Vietnamese artifacts but said it has not received a response.

"The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said they are completing the necessary procedures, but did not provide a specific timeline for the return [of the artifacts]," an official from the Vietnamese department said.

The museum had said in March that it was working with the U.S. government to ensure the proper repatriation of the artifacts to their countries of origin.

Part of this process involves careful research to validate the authenticity and origin of each item, it added.

Of the eight artifacts, six were donated by Emma C. Bunker, a former research consultant of the museum.

One of them is a 19th-century gilded bronze Buddha statue acquired by Bunker from a man named Jonathan Tucker in 2012.

According to the Denver Post, both had dealings with Douglas Latchford, an antique trader known for smuggling Cambodian antiquities for decades.

Bunker and Latchford often forged signatures to create counterfeit histories for contraband artifacts.

Latchford utilized the Denver Art Museum to legitimize items of questionable origin.

The museum removed Bunker's name from its display board in March and returned the US$185,000 donation she and her family had made.

It also discontinued the Asian art fund established in memory of Bunker after her death in 2021.

In November last year, the National Museum of History in Vietnam received 10 artifacts repatriated from the U.S., including an antique stone axe and four Dong Son culture (1000 BCE to first century CE) relics.

The U.S. Department of Justice has facilitated the return of numerous antiquities in recent years.

The Khmer Times reported that Cambodia received five stone and bronze artifacts from Latchford in 2021. Last year the U.S. returned 30 others to Cambodia.

Denver Art Museum, established in 1893, stands as one of the world's largest museums. Its collection features over 70,000 pieces encompassing art and antiquities, including more than 6,000 artifacts showing the evolution of Asia and America. The museum has garnered recognition not only for preserving historical artifacts but also as a prominent tourist destination in the U.S.

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