Sotheby’s Files Defense Denying Knowledge Statue Was Stolen

Sotheby’s has denied having “any knowledge” that a 10th-century Khmer statue in its possession—which the U.S. government has taken the auction house to court over in an effort to return it to Cambodia—was stolen from the Koh Ker temple complex in Preah Vihear province.

In a May 6 filing to the New York district court handling the case, defense lawyers for Sotheby’s and the statue’s owner, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, lay out their counter-arguments to the government’s lawsuit—which stated that there was evidence the auction house was fully aware the $3 million statue was looted when they tried to put it up for sale in 2011.

While the defense concedes in their response that there was “political strife and conflict in Cambodia in the 1960s-70s” which resulted in looting, they deny that this was “well known to participants in the international art market” and say Ms. Ruspoli’s husband had purchased the statue “in good faith.” Ms. Ruspoli gave Sotheby’s the statue to sell in 2010.

“Sotheby’s arranged importation of the Statue from Belgium to the United States and that prior to doing so, Sotheby’s obtained documented provenance…establishing that the Statue had been sold in London in 1975, a time when Cam­bodia had enacted no clear and unambiguous laws declaring itself the owner of all antiquities in Cambodia,” the filing continues.

The defense filing also dismisses correspondence contained in the civil complaint, including a series of emails between an unnamed scholar in Khmer art and Sotheby’s, in which the scholar informs them that there is evidence the statue was stolen. The defense points to the fact that in a subsequent email, the scholar makes a retraction and says the statue can in fact be legally put up for sale.

The defense also rejects the prosecution’s argument that French colonial laws on Cambo­dian antiquities make the statue the property of Cambodia, saying the colonial-era legislation had never been enforced and was “not drafted with sufficient clarity to survive translation into terms understandable by and binding upon American citizens. “

Last year, on seeing that Sotheby’s was planning to auction the “Dur­yodhana” statue, Cambodia asked the U.S. government to intervene on its behalf. The U.S. government moved to seize the statue, and filed a complaint with a Manhattan, New York, court.

Since then, Sotheby’s has asked for the case to be dismissed, a request the judge denied in March. Monday’s defense filing is the latest development in the case but no court date has yet been set.

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