#287: Time to Blow Up the Art World 🧨

How one man siphoned an entire country's culture and art history.

When you think of art heists, you probably think of people sleuthing around museums with a well-coordinated plan like something from a Danny Ocean film. Well, one of the most insidious arts heists ever has actually been ongoing for 50 years without much of those theatrics. The truth is, art heists can sometimes involve way more paperwork than you’d ever see in any movie.

The man who became known as ‘Dynamite Doug’ thanks to his use of explosives while on excavation, looted an entire nation’s cultural heritage. That was all made possible by the lingering systems and side effects of the unique blend of colonialism, nationalism, and communism that took hold of Cambodia and thrust Pol Pot into power.

Douglas Latchford was the world’s premier expert on Cambodian art. He gained fame and notoriety after decades of dealing in the antiquities of a people and culture that dates back thousands of years. Latchford prospered by funneling priceless statues and Cambodian artifacts to Western museums, all thanks to an intricate black market and network of contacts that included the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and art dealers and curators from the West.

Dynamite Doug

Host Ellen Wong does a stellar job setting the stage and the stakes of the incredible true story without giving you a full-on history lesson. There’s good reason for this– learning about the Cambodian Genocide is no quick lesson and the atrocities, war crimes, and cultural devastation stay with you once you take their details in.

What we get with Dynamite Doug is an intentionally focused view into the intricate and systematic steps taken by Douglas Latchford on his way to being indicted for the illicit international trafficking of stolen art and cultural artifacts.

Six episodes gracefully weave a captivating narrative and some wild secret recordings of Latchford and his network of criminals are peppered in along with some interviews.

One thing lands hard from the very first episode: The impacts of the clearcut cultural theft are colossal and Cambodians want that to be reconciled and the pieces on display at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be returned. Many of these pieces are a spiritual connection to Cambodia’s past and rich history and Dynamite Doug makes it clear that that link deserves to be unbroken.

Have a listen and share what you think.

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