Government officials and a representative at Unesco in Phnom Penh yesterday said that Sotheby’s in New York had no right to a 10th century Khmer statue worth more than $2 million that US federal agents were expected to seize from the auction house today.
On Wednesday, New York federal agents filed a civil complaint demanding that Sotheby’s in New York relinquish the sandstone statue—known as the Duryodhana—and return it to Cambodia on the basis that it constitutes stolen property and was brought into the US in violation of the law.
But Sotherby’s, which has taken the item off its auction book, said in a strongly worded statement that the item had been legally imported.
Preet Bharara, attorney for the Southern district of New York, and James Hayes Jr, the special agent in charge of the New York office of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, filed the civil complaint in Manhattan Federal Court on Wednesday, the US Attorney’s office said in a statement.
While no mention was made in the civil complaint as to when federal agents would seize the statue, the New York Times reported yesterday that authorities intended to make a move for the statue from Sotheby’s today.
The statue of the mythic warrior is believed to have been looted from Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Preah Vihear province in the 1960s or 1970s. It was purchased by a private collector in Belgium from a British auction house in 1975, and was finally sent to Sotheby’s to sell in 2010, according to a copy of the civil complaint.
Just before a planned auction for the antique, the Cambodian government wrote to Sotheby’s on March 24, 2011, asking the auction house to remove the piece from auction and return it to Cambodia.
Sotherby’s removed the antique from auction, but told the New York Times that the statue could still be auctioned, as it had been exported long before Cambodia passed a law that protected cultural heritage.
In a novel move to retrieve the statue, a Hungarian art collector of Khmer art offered to purchase the piece at his own cost and then hand it back to the country as a gift. But before those discussions were finalized, Cambodia discovered French colonial-era anti-looting laws, which could help its case in New York. It was at that point that the government requested the US State Department look into the case, and the US Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation.
According to the civil complaint filed in the New York court, Sotheby’s had full knowledge the statue was stolen, but put the piece up for sale in March 2011 anyway. However, after a last-minute request from the Cambodian government to halt the auction and return the statue, Sotheby’s withdrew the statue from the sale.
“The Duryodhana statue is imbued with great meaning for the people of Cambodia, and, as we allege, it was looted form the country during a period of upheaval and unrest, and found its way to the United States. With today’s action, we are taking an important step toward reuniting this ancient artifact with its rightful owners,” Mr. Bharara, the new attorney, said in a statement.
Hab Touch, director general of the tangible heritage department at the Ministry of Culture, said that he was aware of the civil complaint and that there was no question the statue was stolen.
“We are clear the antique statue is ours from Koh Ker temple because we have the legs to prove it. It was stolen,” Mr. Touch said, referring to the fact that the base of the statue, cut off at the feet, remains at Koh Ker.
Mr. Touch declined to comment further on the investigation and referred questions to Unesco.
Philippe Delanghe, cultural program specialist at Unesco in Cambodia, also said that the statue should be brought back to Cambodia.
“We obviously think it’s a good move. We have been advising the government on this issue,” he said. “The fact is it’s a piece that belongs to the Koh Ker collection so we’re happy it’s been seized and we’re hopeful it could come back to Cambodia.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said sending the antiquity back to Cambodia would send out a strong message against looting.
“It’s very important to get it back home because it gives the message to the world don’t encourage stolen goods. We mustn’t support vandalism and stolen artifacts,” he said.
As proof that Sotherby’s was aware the statue was stolen, the civil complaint includes a series of emails between an un-named scholar in Khmer art and officials from Sotherby’s.
“The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen…as the feet are still in situ,” the scholar wrote in a June 1, 2010 email to an anonymous official at Sotherby’s. The scholar, who had been asked by Sotherby’s to write up the antique’s catalogue entry, said in the email that she thought it unwise to sell the statue publicly and it would be best if the owners endowed it to the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Then, in an about turn on June 28, 2010, the scholar, identified by the New York Times as Emma Bunker, wrote to Sotheby’s, saying that in fact she believed they could go ahead and sell the statue as it did not seem as if Cambodia was requesting the return of looted artifacts, according to the civil complaint.
Ms. Bunker also warned Sotheby’s not to bring the sale of the antique to the Minister of Culture’s attention because it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” and was best to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Despite the scholar’s advise, Sotheby’s did write to the Ministry of Culture on Nov 8, 2010, saying it was planning to sell the item, but received no reply and went ahead with plans for auction.
In a statement on Wednesday, Sotherby’s hit back at the civil complaint.
“Sotheby’s strongly disputes the allegations made in this complaint. The sculpture was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared,” the statement said.
“Given that Cambodia has always expressed its desire to resolve this situation amicably, and that we had an understanding with the US Attorney’s Office that no action would be filed pending further discussion toward a resolution of this matter, we are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously,” it added.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)