Who was Emma Bunker? Colorado scholar played role in stolen art market

After the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, David Shu realized he needed to get out of China.

He long had dreamed of studying in the United States, a country that represented everything his didn’t, he said: liberty. The land of the free.

But the teen had trouble finding sponsorship to attend an American university.

Emma C. Bunker “changed my life,” he said, by helping him come to the United States. Decades later, Shu has a good job and a family, living the American dream.

“I owe everything to Emma,” he said.

When Bunker died last year at 90, Denver’s art community grieved the loss of a beloved colleague and friend, an esteemed scholar who wrote dozens of articles and books about Chinese, Eurasian and Southeast Asian art.

She spent decades as a board member, volunteer and consultant for the Denver Art Museum, helping boost its 7,000-piece Asian art collection through donations and connections to some of the world’s most prolific collectors and dealers.

But she also died under the shadow of criminal prosecution. Bunker is referenced or named in five civil and criminal cases involving the sale of looted antiquities, though she never was charged or sued. And it was her close relationship with Douglas Latchford, a disgraced Bangkok dealer who faced criminal charges, that has art crime experts and the Cambodian and Thai governments concerned about the myriad pieces she helped the Denver Art Museum acquire.

Bunker was born June 19, 1930, in Haverford, Penn.

She earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, studying with the esteemed Alexander Soper and William Watson, two titans in the field of Asian art.

In 1956, she married John Bunker, a sugar executive and son of a U.S. ambassador. The couple moved to Denver six years later.

In a male-dominated industry, Bunker — whose friends called her Emmy — stood out for her scholarship, becoming a leading authority on personal adornment in China and the art of the horse-riding tribes of the Eurasian Steppes.

“My mom knew history inside and out,” said Harriet Bunker, one of Emma’s five children.

Her work once comprised half an exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and she published and lectured extensively on the subject.

In the 1980s, she helped launch the Connoisseurs’ Council at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to support the purchase of relics. Bunker courted wealthy Bay Area collectors, convincing them to donate their prized relics to the museum.

In Denver, she and her husband befriended some of the world’s top art dealers and collectors, helping the Denver Art Museum acquire big-time pieces for its Asian art collection. One prominent collector, Christian Humann, agreed in 1971 to loan much of his Pan Asian Collection to the museum based on his friendship with Bunker, according to a 2007 article published by two of the museum’s Asian art curators.

The Bunkers donated 221 pieces to the Denver Art Museum over the years, filling glass cases in the European, American, Latin American and Asian art galleries.

Beginning in 1963, the Bunkers also donated money to the museum, and Emma’s name is listed as a “major benefactor” on a giant board near the institution’s downtown entrance.

She spent parts of three decades as a visiting professor at Colorado College as well, teaching courses on Asian art and introduction to art history. John Bunker also was on campus, lecturing on business ethics.

“Emma was highly regarded as an exceptionally knowledgeable scholar,” said Jacqueline Simcox, a London art dealer.

Bunker had an innate ability to grasp subtle details about particular objects, contemporaries said, writing authoritatively about how they fit within the context of the time period.

“Emmy was excellent at perceiving fakes and forgeries and understanding their nature and distinguishing them from authentic objects,” said Hiram Woodward, a friend and former curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

She was a force of personality, friends and colleagues said, and held firmly to her beliefs.

“She would make it very clear if she did not like an idea,” said Tianlong Jiao, a former Asian art curator at the Denver Art Museum, who considered Bunker a mentor and friend. “Emmy wasn’t shy.”

Chatty and warm, Bunker developed a broad group of friends.

“She was a kind of all-embracing, outgoing, extremely hospitable, very enthusiastic, charming person,” said Angus Forsyth, a friend of Bunker’s.

If Bunker liked you, she’d do anything for you, said Joyce Clark, a longtime friend. “But if she didn’t, watch out,” Clark said.

Bunker’s fields of expertise and research also bled into her personal life.

Shu’s father met Bunker in the 1980s during conferences and scholar exchanges in China. Despite the language barrier, the two became good friends.

After Tiananmen Square, she helped Shu and another Chinese student make it to America.

“It was difficult to get them out,” Bunker told The Denver Post in 2005 after her husband’s death. “We wiggled a few things around to get it done.”

With the Bunkers’ support, Shu attended Colorado College. He spent summers with the family in Wyoming, helping out on the ranch as John Bunker worked with him on his English.

“She was really a loving, passionate person who’s dedicated to her family and to her work,” Shu said. “She played a really good role model for me.”

The Bunkers lived in Wyoming but kept an apartment in Denver, which they adorned with art from around the globe, friends and colleagues said. The walls were filled with modern collages, Chinese and Tibetan works and American Indian relics.

On the ranch, Bunker rode horses and wrestled cattle.

“She was rough and rugged,” Clark said.

On her frequent trips to China and Southeast Asia, Bunker would bring along some of her children or 19 grandchildren.

Harriet Bunker said she was in awe of her mother’s deep knowledge of the region’s artwork.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s my mom,’” she said.

Over the course of her life, Bunker published more than 50 works.

“Her whole entire life was, ‘I have to write one more article, one more paper,’” Harriet Bunker said. “She died writing one more article.”

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