Feds Sue for Return of “Looted” Khmer Statue; Insider Emails Reveal Sotheby’s Was Warned Statue Was “Definitely Stolen”

On Wednesday, the U.S. government filed suit seeking to return a 10th Century stone warrior to Cambodia, where it was allegedly looted.

The statue is currently at Sotheby’s in New York, which was set to auction the piece on behalf of a private collector in March 2011. On the day of the sale, Sotheby’s was notified by Cambodian officials that the object had been looted from Koh Ker, an archaeological site 80 miles east of Angkor Watt.

The parties have been negotiating a settlement to the dispute for the past year, as the New York Times reported in February. But those negotiations ended abruptly Wednesday when the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed suit. Authorities will seize the statue on Thursday, the Times reported Wednesday.

In making their case for the statue’s return, the US Attorney cites revealing emails from a scholar warning the auction house that the statue should not be sold at public auction:

“The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from.

I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.”

The scholar later consulted with “culture spies and museum director” in Cambodia and told Sotheby’s it was not likely that government would pursue a claim. Sotheby’s proceeded with the sale, with officials saying in internal emails that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,'” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk.”

The New York  Times identified the scholar as Emma C. Bunker, an authority on Khmer art. She has written defending the right of collectors to buy ancient art, describing them as “not despoilers of the past but people of great intellectual curiosity who cherished the past long before the world was populated by scientifically trained archaeologists.”

There are frequent references in the federal complaint to another statue looted from the same site at “the museum,” an apparent reference to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which has a very similar statue that once served as a wrestling figure in Koh Ker. We’ve asked the museum for comment.

The back-story here is interesting: The head of Global Compliance for Sotheby’s is Jane Levine, a former member of the US Attorney’s office now suing for the statue’s return. Levine specialized in making the type of art crime cases her employer is now facing, and has written several articles on international trafficking in stolen art and artifacts. We’ve reached out to her for a comment.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said: “Sotheby’s strongly disputes the allegations made in this complaint. This sculpture was legally imported into the United States and   all relevant facts were openly declared.   We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left  Cambodia over the last one thousand years nor is there any such evidence  in this complaint. We have been in active discussions for a year with  both the US and Cambodian governments and  we had assured them that we would voluntarily maintain possession of this statue pending further discussion. 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 towards a resolution of this matter,  we are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously.”

HOT DOC: Here is the government’s complaint, which begins citing the internal emails on page 11:

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12 responses to “Feds Sue for Return of “Looted” Khmer Statue; Insider Emails Reveal Sotheby’s Was Warned Statue Was “Definitely Stolen”

  1. Pingback: Getting Dirtier in the “swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities” « Nord on Art

  2. Pingback: Don’t mention the feet! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it. #Cambodia #looting &academic collusion | conflict antiquities

  3. Pingback: The Battle for Koh Ker: Legal Implications of Cambodia’s Dispute with Sotheby’s | CHASING APHRODITE

  4. Pingback: Sotheby’s Accused of Deceit in Sale of Khmer Statue - ikonotv

  5. Pingback: The Guardian and the Goddess: Looted Statues Reveal Workings of Illicit Trade | CHASING APHRODITE

  6. Pingback: Douglas Latchford’s Footprints: Suspect Khmer Antiquities At the Denver Art Museum | CHASING APHRODITE

  7. Pingback: @samarkeolog Twitter archive: illicit antiquities trade elsewhere | conflict antiquities

  8. Pingback: Gloves Come Off: Amid Accusations of Deceit, Sotheby’s Lawsuit Reveals How U.S. Built Its Case | CHASING APHRODITE

  9. L’ha ribloggato su Pittura1arte2disegno3e ha commentato:
    WIKILOOT, caccia alle antichità saccheggiate nei Musei del Mondo NETLOG+GOOGLE Blogs artistici

  10. Pingback: Repatriation of cultural property in the news | Bruno Claessens

  11. Pingback: Blood Antiquities: After Lengthy Fight, Sotheby’s Agrees to Return Looted Khmer Statue | CHASING APHRODITE

  12. I been to the Norton Simmon Museum 8-9 years ago. I live next Pasadena. I use to see a statue of the two wrestler lock in a grip-waist lock position statue there . But now they don’t have it ..they remove it. But i bet the director of the museum know where they are.

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