Sotheby’s Ends Battle, Will Return Khmer Statue

Sotheby’s auction house in New York has agreed to return a pre-Angkorian statue, looted from Koh Ker temple in the 1970s, to Cambodia, government officials said Friday.

The decision marks the end of an almost two-year-long legal battle involving Sotheby’s and the U.S. and Cambodian governments over ownership of the Duryodhana warrior, a 10th century sandstone statue that was put up for auction in March 2011. The U.S. halted the auction on behalf of the Cambodian government as it was argued that the Duryodhana was looted from Koh Ker temple in Preah Vihear province during the civil war in the 1970s, along with eight other statues.

“I received the news. The U.S. attorney told us that the statue will be returned,” Chan Tany, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said Friday.

According to the agreement signed by Sotheby’s, the statue will be taken to a representative of the Cambodian government in the U.S. within the next 90 days.

“We don’t know when yet, but Sotheby’s will contact me,” Mr. Tany said, adding that the agreement was a great victory for Cambodia.

“We have worked on this for more than two years so we are talking about a lot of evidence, for example: that we can show them [Sotheby’s] the legal aspect, the archeological and historical data, and the fact that the statue used to be in Cambodia because the pedestal still is” in place, he said.

When the statue was looted in the turmoil of the civil war, it was hacked off its pedestals and transported to Thailand. The pedestals are still in place at Koh Ker temple, Mr. Tany said, and they fit the feet of the statue in the U.S.

According to news reports, Sotheby’s signed an agreement on Thursday with a Belgian woman, who had put the statue up for sale, and the U.S. government, which states that its decision to return the statue to Cambodia was made voluntarily.

The agreement, according to the reports, states that Sotheby’s and the “consignor” “have voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with the respect to cultural heritage, to arrange for the statue to be transferred to the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

In exchange, the U.S. attorneys office dropped its initial court case and claims that Sotheby’s and the consignor were aware that the Duryodhana had been looted and was the property of Cambodia.

“Sotheby’s is delighted to have arranged for an amicable resolution that both achieves our longstanding objective to facilitate the transfer of the sculpture to Cambodia and confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times,” Sotheby’s told Associated Press.

Unesco’s Cambodia Country Director Anne Lemaistre said she was satisfied with the turn of events.

“Unesco is very satisfied with this decision, but it also shows that all the evidence gathered by the attorneys proved that it is looted—even though we knew that from the beginning,” Ms. Lemaistre said.

The agreement, she said, follows the example of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which in June returned the two “Kneeling Attendants” sandstone statues that had been looted from Koh Ker’s Prasat Chen temple.

“We have to acknowledge the incredible gesture of the Metropolitan before Sotheby’s,” she said.

The Kneeling Attendants were two of the five Pandava brothers, depicted in their fight against Duryodhana at Koh Ker.

A total of nine statues were looted from Prasat Chen—three are in the hands of private collectors, while museums in Cleveland and Denver as well as the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, hold the remaining three.

The Norton Simon Museum, which currently holds Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers from Prasat Chen temple, agreed this week to investigate if the statue had been looted, Ms. Lemaistre said.

“The Norton Simon Museum contacted Cambodian authorities and they will come and visit. So we hope this statue will be returned soon and that the other museums will follow.”

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