Wednesday 12 January 2022

US Big-Tech Collector Named

Two days ago the big news was the attempted forfeiture of a collection of 34 (or 35) SE Asian antiquities from an unnamed collector. It seems to have been Tom Mashberg that determined the identity of the individual that had accumulated this material. While Netscape founder James H. Clark (77) was quite well known as a collector of fine wines, his name being freely attached to a number of sales, such as this one by Christie's, there are relatively few mentions in the internet until a few hours ago of any antiquities he had purchased. Certainly there seems to be no published catalogue of "The James H. Clark Collection of Asian Antiquities" and it is unclear what access scholars and the public had to more than a few of his pieces, such as the one exhibited in the Denver Museum. Mashberg however names him as the owner of the 34/35 antiquities mentioned in the DOJ press release ('Netscape Founder Gives Up $35 Million in Art Said to Be Stolen'  New York Times 12 Jan 2022; see also Spencer Woodman, ' Tech titan surrenders Cambodian relics sold by indicted dealer amid broader repatriation push' The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists​, January 12, 2022). According to the complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, among Mr Clark's collection were sculptures that he had obtained more than a decade ago, from  Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British art dealer indicted in 2019 for allegedly trafficking hundreds of antiquities from Southeast Asia (who died in 2020 before he could appear in court). Latchford's dealings, and the identities of some of his clients, were revealed by the Pandora Papers. According to the document, 34 of the antiquities were sold to clark by Latchford between "in or about 2003 and in or about 2007" (Mashberg says "the period between 2003 and 2008"). They were accompanied by what later turned out to be “false statements and fake provenance documents intended to hide the fact that the antiquities were the products of looting, and then imported the antiquities through lies on customs paperwork”. Oddly, a collector paying that sort of money seems not to have thought it worth retaining somebody to actually check whether those documents could be verified as authentic. Mr Clark in an interview pleaded lack of awareness (“As a naïve person,” he said, “I had apparently somewhat ignorantly acquired one of the nicest private collections of Cambodian antiquities"). Hmmm. It is interesting to note that this buying spree dates to after the main floruit of Netscape as a browser (and while it was in the ownership of AOL). As Mashberg notes,
After the sale of his penthouse, Mr. Clark’s collection had largely been kept for the last 10 years in two South Florida storage units, from which it was taken as part of the seizure by the federal government that he did not contest.
So they were not even on display in one of his homes at the time. Interestingly, he decided not to come forward earlier. As Mashberg reports: 
 Mr. Clark said he grew wary of Mr. Latchford, who had come recommended by an interior decorator, in 2008 when Mr. Clark sought assurances about a “beautiful” museum-quality female deity he was being offered for more than $30 million. “I wanted some Cambodian government authentication of this thing and he would not respond to those messages and I finally just said, ‘There’s something wrong here — this guy is a bit of a crook,’” Mr. Clark recalled. “I had kind of concluded that it was something illicit because he would not respond to those requests”.
It seems he did not think it worth contacting the Cambodian government himself or through an agent, or indeed why he'd not sought such assurances over a previous 34 purchases from this dealer. We are led to infer that he did not purchase the "beautiful museum-quality female deity" from Cambodia (where is it now?) and stopped buying items from Latchford (at least). About four years later, however, he liquidated the Miami Beach penthouse where he kept the items and put them ("largely") in storage in Palm Beach (“I kept wanting to bring parts of it out,” Clark said of the collection. “The decorator we’d use for any place we had, he wasn’t excited about it”). This is very revealing, the collection was not bought to grow the collector's (or anyone else's) knowledge of an ancient culture, but merely as decorative trophy pieces. 

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