In the latest development in the Cambodian government’s effort to seize a thousand-year-old, five-hundred-pound sculpture from Sotheby’s, where it has been consigned by its owner for auction, two lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan traveled to the Cambodian jungle in late February. (Repatriation of Cambodian Art…) The lawyers went to inspect the scene of the alleged crime, that is, a Khmer Dynasty temple from which the statue was allegedly looted in the 1970’s.
The rationale for the trip is the subject of debate. While a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office maintained that the trip was business as usual, experts in cultural heritage law said it was rare for federal lawyers to visit a foreign archeological site, according to The New York Times. Lawyers agreed that the trip’s high profile underscores the State Department’s view that cultural heritage issues are a major part of public diplomacy. According to The Times, Peter R. Stern of McLaughlin & Stern, a veteran arts lawyer and onetime outside counsel for Sotheby’s, said, “I find it hard to believe this would come without a directive from above, and I think it is more foreign policy than law enforcement.”
A federal judge is scheduled to rule in weeks on whether the government’s case to seize the statue can proceed to trial.