Martin Lerner

Portrait of Martin   Lerner

Martin Lerner, Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) for 31 years (1972-2003) is an art historian who became entangled in the controversy around Cambodian looted art for his connections with Douglas Latchford in the years 2000s-2010s.

In a report dated 18 Aug 2022, The New York Times asserted that "the documents, found on Latchford’s computer after it was turned over to Cambodia by his daughter, show that Lerner used his expertise and reputation as a former Met expert to help Latchford market items for sale. In letters drawn up for Latchford clients, Lerner vouched for the value and significance of artifacts, in one case using language that closely tracked with what Latchford had asked him to write. They also owned at least one artifact together."

In public declarations, Martin Lerner argued that acquisition of Asian artworks (and Khmer in particular) at the end of the 20th century was motivated by the necessity of saving them from civil war and destruction, or to financially help poor farmer families. He acknowledged that “you were relying on the goodwill and integrity of the dealers themselves." Gradually, provenance became more important, he said, and he expanded his research on objects before accepting them. But he said it was not a priority set by the museum and he lacked the time and resources to investigate fully. Even if he learned the name of a previous owner, it was often hard to follow up.
“At the time I did indeed do what was possible and what I was expected to do,” he said. “It was an incomplete system.” “Surely toward the end of my tenure at the Met,” he continued, “I could have done more.” [Ibid.]

Douglas Latchford and Martin Lerner, date unknown (photo NYT)