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.