A new development occurred this week in the fight over a priceless Cambodian statue. This past Monday, August 27, federal prosecutors filed court papers on behalf of Cambodia accusing Sotheby’s of knowing that the 10th century work–which was to be sold at auction in New York City–“was an important piece of cultural property that had been stolen” from its homeland during the violent upheavals of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. For previous posts chronicling the story, please see: Global Art Conflict in New York, and Sotheby’s Takes Action Against Cambodian Property Claim.
The case began over a year ago, when the Cambodian government asked the United States for help in recovering the thousand year old statue. Experts believed it to be stolen during the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), a time at which looters took advantage of the chaos to plunder long inaccessible temples and remove priceless antiquities. The statue was to be sold at Sotheby’s on March 24, 2011 on behalf of Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, a Belgian collector who acquired it in 1975 from a London antiquities dealer. Amid allegations, Sotheby’s withdrew the statue on the day it was to be sold.
The sandstone masterwork, whose estimated value is $2-$3 million, is five feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. It is one of a pair of warriors in a battle-ready stance from a remote temple complex in Koh Ker. Archaeologists and Cambodian officials have also located the very pedestal and feet of the statue at the site. The statue is approximately 200 years older than the famed sculptures at Angkor Wat, which is 60 miles away.
In June, Sotheby’s asked a federal judge in Manhattan to dismiss the civil action to force the return of the statue. For its part, Sotheby’s claimed that its owner had “clear title” to the work, which was purchased at London’s Spink & Son in December, 1975, even though the records detailing how the company acquired that statue are no longer available.
Jane A. Levine, a senior vice president and worldwide compliance director for Sotheby’s, has said that the auction house was “aware that there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects.” She stated that the statue could have been removed at any time during its thousand year history and that Cambodia “did not identify any basis to contest the owner’s title to the property and did not allege that it would be unlawful for Sotheby’s to sell the statue.” She also stated that “Sotheby’s approach to the Khmer sculpture is one of responsible and ethical market behavior and international cooperation between private and public entities.”
The prosecution’s filing contains statements from two heritage law experts who state that Cambodian and British law dictate that the statue be treated as stolen property. Matthew Rendall, one of the experts, said that the statue is covered under Cambodian statutes, royal orders, and decrees dating to the early 1900s that declare such items to be the “exclusvie” and “immovable” property of the government. Mr. Rendall noted five occasions between 1985 and 1997 that Sotheby’s returned sculptures to Cambodia after claims they had been looted sometime after 1970.
Source: The New York Times