Cambodia Takes on Sotheby’s to Reclaim Looted Sculpture

About four decades ago as Cambodia’s civil war spread and the countryside fell to Khmer Rouge forces, two statues of Bhima and Duryodhana—mythical warriors from the Hindu epic Mahabharata—were broken off their pedestal at the Koh Ker temple complex, where they had stood for more than 1,000 years.

Unknown traffickers smuggled the man-sized sandstone pieces from the remote, jungle-covered temple complex in Preah Vihear province to Thailand, after which the statues-which are considered masterpieces of Khmer sculpture-ended up in the possession of wealthy European and American art collectors.

Now, however, one of the statues might return home, as the Cambodian government has launched a claim to the piece after it turned up for sale at Sotheby’s auction house in New York last year for an estimated asking price of between $2 million and $3 million.

The government sought help from the US State Department in the case, while a Hungarian art collector and philanthropist said yesterday that he is working with the Cambodian government to negotiate a private purchase of the sculpture for $1 million in order to ensure its safe return to Cambodia.

Sotheby’s was planning to put the statue of Duryodhana on the auction block on March 24 last year–describing it as “one of the great achievements of Khmer art” in its sales catalog. That was until the government sent a letter to Sotheby’s days before the sale last year, said Hab Touch, director general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture.

“We saw Sotheby’s announcement, then we took action,” Mr. Touch said. “We requested it to withdraw the statue from the list because it was illegally trafficked.”

“That why Sotheby’s withdrew it” from sale, he added.

Mr. Touch said Cambodia has evidence of the fact that the statue had been looted from the Koh Ker temple.

“We found the base, the pedestal in situ, so we are confident that the statue at Sotheby’s is from there,” he said.

The two 10th-century statues of Bhima and Duryodhana, Mr. Touch said, had been displayed in Koh Ker with the mythic warriors locked in an epic fight, adding that the pieces-which are about 1.50 meter tall-represented the pinnacle of ancient Khmer sculpture.

“There were 15 styles of sculpture in ancient Cambodia. Normally all Khmer sculptures are static, but the Koh Ker style represents movement. It’s the only one,” he said.

Last year the government also contacted the State Department requesting it to look into Cambodia’s claim to the piece held by Sotheby’s, he said, adding, “We are working together on that.”

The New York Times reported yesterday that the US Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into the case following Cambodia’s request. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said it could not comment.

Sotheby’s told the New York Times that it had acted appropriately in the case, as the statue’s owner–identified only as “a noble European lady”–had “clear title” to the piece, which she bought in 1975 from a London auction house.

Sotheby’s senior vice president and worldwide compliance officer Jane A. Levine told the New York Times that the Duryodhana statue could be auctioned because it was exported “long before” Cambodia passed a law that nationalized cultural heritage.

Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, said in an email yesterday that the law in question was passed in 1992 and added that Ms. Levine was correct in asserting that it was not retroactive.

Cambodia and the US have an agreement that restricts the import of Khmer antiquities unless approved by the Cambodian government, but Ms. Davis said this agreement only pertains to pieces imported to the US after 1999.

As it has limited legal options to reclaim the piece, the Cambodian government has taken another approach and it is working with a Hungarian Southeast Asian art collector and businessman Istvan Zelnik, who wants to buy the piece for Cambodia.

“That was a choice of the government to do so,” said Anne Lemaistre, head of Unesco in Cambodia, which is working with Cambodia and Mr. Zelnik to negotiate the purchase of the statue.

“We don’t know when the piece was exported from Cambodia and how, we only have the pedestal.”

In previous weeks, Ms. Lemaistre and Mr. Touch had not responded to several inquiries by The Cambodia Daily about Cambodia’s efforts to repatriate the piece at Sotheby’s.

Mr. Zelnik said in a Skype call from Hungary that he was willing to buy the statue of Duryodhana from the European collector and return it to a museum in Cambodia.

“In the last month we exchanged letters with Sotheby’s and finally I proposed $1 million to buy back the statue,” he said. “I am waiting for the response of Sotheby’s.”

He said he was offering less than Sotheby’s catalog valuation of the piece “because it is no longer realistic to sell it on the international market after the request from the Cambodian government.”

Mr. Zelnik said he owns a group of companies in Southeast Asia and is a former diplomat who was stationed in the region long ago, adding that he re-opened the Hungarian Embassy in Cambodia in 1979. He has also founded a museum in Budapest to house his collection of Southeast Asian art. He said that he believed that either Khmer Rouge or Lon Nol forces had looted the statues of Bhima and Duryodhana in the early 1970s, due to the logistical challenges of moving the massive pieces.

US industrialist Norton Simon bought the statue of Bhima in 1975 and it is currently in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in California.

Mr. Touch, from the Culture Ministry, said it was “too early” to say if Cambodia would try to reclaim the Bhima piece as well.

Large-scale looting of ancient Khmer antiquities occurred during Cambodia’s long civil war from the early 1970s until the late 1990s, and Mr. Zelnik, who knows the international markets well, said he had seen “thousands and thousands of pieces” of looted Khmer art on US and European markets over the years.

Very few pieces have been returned so far, as for instance only 10 percent of Unesco’s 1993 list “Angkor Wat: One Hundred Missing Objects” have been repatriated since its publication.

Eric Bourdonneau, an archeologist with the Ecole francais d’extreme orient, is one of the scholars who discovered the pedestals with the missing Bhima and Duryodhana statues in 2009 at Koh Ker. Using a computer program, he then matched the feet that remained on the pedestals to the statue in the Norton Simon museum, and identified it as a fighting Bhima. He then conjectured that its missing companion had been a Duryodhana. He said that the statues had almost certainly been looted during the early 1970s, as there is evidence they were still at Koh Ker in the 1960s.

“Today, Koh Ker looks like a vast scene of not very ancient looting,” he said.

Ms. Davis, from the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, said that a recent discovery of long-forgotten French colonial-era laws might strengthen Cambodia’s national legal protection, as she found that these laws protect Cambodia’s cultural heritage from 1925 and after.

“This rediscovery has huge implications, as it strengthens Cambodia’s legal claims to its looted and stolen art, much of which is now held in museum and private collections overseas,” she said.

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