BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 03 APR 23

True-Crime Podcast Dynamite Doug Takes on the Art World

Focusing on an alleged looter of Cambodian cultural heritage, this six-part series is yet another reminder that too many stolen artefacts still reside in Western museums

BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 03 APR 23

Over the past decade, true-crime podcasts have risen in prominence since the launch of Serial (2014–18), the original sleuth drama. There is something attractive about the formula: a hero (or an anti-hero) who falls from grace. With insider knowledge from close associates revealed to a tense music soundscape, these shows seek to bring the audience to a legal awakening or to discover some underlying disparity in the case. The format’s popularity has as much to do with the dramatic seduction as the nefarious content – a guilty pleasure that often draws attention not only to a death but to systemic and socio-economic inequality. What happens, then, when the controversies of the art world are hewn to the true-crime podcast genre?

Following on the heels of Helen Molesworth’s Death of an Artist (2022), Project Brazen and PRX’s six-part podcast series Dynamite Doug (2023) is an explicit take on the crime genre. Although the story isn’t new – it has been reported in outlets like The New York Times (2019) and The Washington Post (2021) – the medium and method are. While some of the interviews conducted already existed in legal proceedings, the producers also interviewed scholars and activists, making this the first audio series to feature oral testimonies and recordings from the trial. It is an unnerving account of the displacement of Cambodian artefacts – intricate bronze sculptures, ceramic jars, gold and jewels – which were allegedly stolen by the late art dealer Douglas Latchford between 1970 and 2000. Described by The Washington Post as a ‘genial Englishman’ who ‘was an explorer of jungle temples, a scholar and a connoisseur seduced by the exquisite details of ancient sculpture’, Latchford is not what you would expect from an art thief. He played a central role in building the Southeast Asian collections of notable American institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum. Yet, his actions allegedly left Cambodians dispossessed of some of their most cherished ancient artefacts while under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79) – one of the most brutish periods in the country’s history.

ellen wong
Ellen Wong. Courtesy: Project Brazen

But, while the podcast might bear his name, this story is not just about Latchford. Narrator Ellen Wong – a Canadian actress with Cambodian roots who digs into the story not merely from an investigative perspective but as someone with a personal connection to it – grapples with this by dissecting not only the art dealer’s relationship to his accomplices but by revealing an entire network of people who helped to procure the Cambodian artefacts, estimate them as worthy, forge documents to misrepresent their provenance and sell them to art collectors. One of the central institutional intermediaries is Emma C. Bunker, an art historian well-versed in the field of Khmer studies and a friend of Latchford. Although Wong notes that there is no direct evidence that she was aware of the looting, Bunker’s career flourished because of her access to his art collection. At the same time, without Bunker’s scholarship, Latchford, who was indicted but never charged for his alleged crimes, would have lacked the legitimacy to put a value on his art. The implication is that, when rare artefacts provide career or financial benefits for scholars and dealers alike, there is less desire to ensure that these pieces – among them the tenth-century statue Standing Female Deity, which currently resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – were lawfully acquired.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro performing a solo dance in front of an 8th-century ‘harihara’ statue at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Project Brazen

While the ingredients of the podcast may be unique, the stylistic choices are predictable. Like Serial, Dynamite Doug exhumes evidence and raises questions. Little seems left to the imagination, and the series might have been strengthened by putting greater trust in the audience’s capacity for deduction. Although there is plenty of evidence that Latchford was unscrupulous, the narrative sometimes falls flat because it leaves hardly any room for ambiguity, with the show’s press materials unequivocally telling audiences from the offset that ‘he plundered an entire civilization’. But there are other quibbles. The podcast could have benefitted from discussing in greater detail how Cambodia’s national push to repatriate Khmer Empire artefacts is part of a broader shift by countries in the Global South to recover precious items that were pillaged during colonialism.

Dynamite Doug cover art. Courtesy: Project Brazen

Near the end of the series, Wong gets to the core of the problem when she asks: ‘Is it great for museums in New York and London to be filled with statues from other countries?’ The answer, of course, is a resounding ‘no’. This is not just about whether the provenance of the art objects is dubious but whether we, as art viewers, are complicit in a system that legitimizes the taking of artefacts from their intended context. In a 1994 article for The New York Times, critic Holland Cotter wrote about the conditions that led to Angkor-period sculptures residing in the West: ‘One is prompted to speculate on exactly how art objects are extracted from their impoverished, often strife-torn homes of origin to land in the lap of a rich American museum.’ This sentiment is the theme of Dynamite Doug: is the crime in question the looting or is it something even bigger?

But there is another point the programme forces us to consider: what is it about the podcast medium that makes us want to listen to a narrative drawn from evidence which has been out in the open for years? Are we more attuned to true crime when it’s packaged in an easily digestible format? And what is our shared responsibility as art viewers?

The Benin Bronzes (detail), The British Museum. Courtesy: Wikicommons

For nearly 50 years, African governments have demanded that European institutions – which possess the most extensive collections of African cultural relics – return these bronzes, statues and ancestral corpses to their countries of origin, noting that the items and people had no right to be taken in the first place. Until recently, the rebuttals issued by these institutions were pedestrian, citing a lack of clarity over whether the items were truly stolen and claiming to have ‘better’ facilities to house them than their counterparts in the Global South. This response compelled some descendants to note that the sacred remains of their relatives were never intended to be preserved, so restitution – even at the risk of destruction – is the only appropriate ethical response. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, African artworks have remained in Western museums.

Loss is at the centre of Dynamite Doug – not as an event particular to one country but as part of a glaring, art-world phenomenon. The culprit isn’t merely the art looter himself, but anyone blinkered to the moral obligation of restitution.

All six episodes of Dynamite Doug are available on Apple Podcasts. 

Thumbnail: Head of a Buddha, Cambodia, ca. 920–50. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Main image: Standing Four-Armed Vishnu, Cambodia, second half of the 7th century. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book explores contagion in confined spaces.