US seeks to return Khmer statue to Cambodia

 US seeks to return Khmer statue to Cambodia
Posted: 05 April 2012 0946 hrs

Texts from Channel News Asia (CNA)

NEW YORK: US prosecutors announced they have launched civil action against auction house Sotheby’s, seeking the forfeiture of a 10th century Khmer statue so it can be returned to Cambodia.

Prosecutors say the sandstone statue, known as the Duryodhana, was stolen “during periods of extreme unrest” in Cambodia during the 1960s or 1970s — an allegation the auction house strongly denied.

The statue — which has an estimated value of between US$2 million and US$3 million — was pulled from a Sotheby’s sale in March 2011 after Cambodian authorities sent a letter via UNESCO demanding that it be returned to them.

Negotiations between the two sides have been fruitless.

In the civil complaint, the US attorney’s office in New York claims the statue was stolen from Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia before being illegally imported to New York from Europe.

A private collector turned the statue over to Sotheby’s for the planned March 2011 auction. The house withdrew the item from the sale after receiving the letter from Cambodian authorities, but still retains possession.

“The Duryodhana statue is imbued with great meaning for the people of Cambodia,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

“With today’s action, we are taking an important step toward reuniting this ancient artifact with its rightful owners.”

The statue was connected to the Koh Ker site because its base and feet remain at the temple from which it was stolen, archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau, a lecturer at the French School for Far Eastern Studies, told AFP.

Sotheby’s issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” by the action taken by federal prosecutors.

“This sculpture was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared,” it said.

“We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last 1,000 years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint.”

Sotheby’s said the auction house was willing to further discuss the statue’s ownership with US and Cambodian government officials, but maintained its right to retain possession of the statue in the interim.

“We are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously,” Sotheby’s said.

– AFP/wm

 

Read also:

Report that Federal Agents will seize Khmer Statue from Sotheby’s

http://illicit-cultural-property.blogspot.com/2012/04/report-that-federal-agents-will-seize.html

 

Report that Federal Agents will seize Khmer Statue from Sotheby’s

It looks like the attention drawn to Sotheby’s auction of this Koh Ker statue will result in Federal seizure of the statue:

Federal agents in New York on Wednesday moved to seize a thousand-year-old Cambodian statue from Sotheby’s, alleging in a civil complaint that Sotheby’s had put the 10th-century figure of a mythological warrior up for auction despite knowing that it had been stolen from a temple. Investigators said the sandstone statue, whose return is being sought by Cambodia and which is valued at $2 million to $3 million, would be impounded on Thursday by agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security. The statue, consigned to Sotheby’s for sale by a Belgian collector, had been set for auction in New York in March 2011 but was abruptly pulled from the market at the last minute after Cambodia claimed ownership. At the time Sotheby’s rejected Cambodia’s efforts to recover the Khmer antiquity, insisting there was no proof that it had been looted and therefore the auction was legal. But in a series of internal e-mail exchanges obtained by investigators and included in the federal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court in New York, at least one Sotheby’s officer is depicted as having been told in 2010 by a scholar in Cambodian art that Cambodian officials considered the statue a looted artifact.

With evidence that Sotheby’s was told the statue had been looted, the Federal agents have a powerful piece of evidence they did not have in the Ka Nefer Nefer case. I would expect the unnamed Belgian collector who put the statue up for consignment to consider relinquishing the statue quickly. If it was purchased in good faith, he or she has a good claim against the dealer they bought it from. How long new before the Norton Simon is pressured to return its version of the statue?

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Ancient Cambodian Statue Is Seized From Sotheby’s, The New York Times, April 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/arts/design/ancient-cambodian-statue-is-seized-from-sothebys.html (last visited Apr 4, 2012).

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