A Blast from the Past: “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol”

 Imagine you’re a thief about to pull a heist at the local temple.

You can’t wait to get your hands on all those statues, altarpieces, gold. In the middle of the night, you sneak up to the entrance and…

(in a different voice, the Temple Guardian speaks.) ‘YE-AHH! BEGONE THIEF! HA HA. THE TEMPLE IS SAFE ONCE MORE.’

So begins the children’s audio guide for the Norton Simon Museum’s statue of a 10th century sandstone temple warrior from Koh Ker, the one-time capital of the Angkor Kingdom in Cambodia.

Originally, the statue was a temple guardian, “placed outside a house of worship to protect it from evil spirits,” the guide explains. “This is only part of the sculpture…When it was new, it had hands and feet of course.”

The evil spirits apparently won, because the guardian is now in Pasadena, and the Cambodian temple it once guarded has been thoroughly looted. But those missing feet were found in 2007, along with a second pair that experts say belong to a matching statue now at Sotheby’s. Last week, the federal government filed a lawsuit seeking to seize the statue from the auction house on behalf of the Cambodian government.

There is little question that both statues were stolen — their abandoned feet bear witness to the crime. The only question is when: sometime over the past 1,000 years, as Sotheby’s suggests. Or — as Cambodia, the US government and archaeologists suggest — more recently, in the turbulent 1960s or 1970’s when civil unrest in Cambodia fueled unprecedented looting. If the later, both statues could be considered stolen property under U.S. law.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby's, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

Norton Simon himself was not coy about the illicit origins of his impressive collection of Asian art, which today is a highlight of his Pasadena museum. In a 1973 article headlined, “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol,” the New York Times asked Simon about a bronze Hindu deity of Siva he had just purchased for $1 million. India claimed it had been ripped from a temple and smuggled out of the country. His answer:

“Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” said Mr. Simon in a telephone interview. “I spent between $15- and $16-million over the last two years on Asian Art and most of it was smuggled. I don’t know whether it was stolen.”

The same would appear to apply to the Khmer temple guardian that he bought three years later from a New York dealer William H. Wolff.

A Norton Simon spokeswoman said in a statement that “since [1976], the museum has proudly displayed this important example of Cambodian art, and has had the privilege of showing it to the Director of the National Museum of Cambodia (who we understand is now the Director General of Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts).  In more than three decades of ownership, the Foundation’s ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned.”

Until now, that is. Cambodian officials told Voice of America this week that they will seek the return of the Norton Simon statue and countless other missing pieces if their claim for the statue at Sotheby’s is successful. See:

Much of the evidence cited against the statue at Sotheby’s would seem to apply to its brother in the Norton Simon Museum. Indeed, Sotheby’s apparently linked the two objects to a common site in their own proposal to sell the statue:

An almost identical figure, now resting in the collections of the [deleted] Museum…allows one to conjure up a wonderful vision of the two statues together perhaps lining an entrance way leading to the dark temple interior and the sanctuaries of the gods.

Reunited: The abandoned feet at Koh Ker digitally superimposed on the Temple Warrior at the Norton Simon, from a report to UNESCO by researcher Simon Warrack.

A wonderful vision, indeed — and a surprisingly accurate description of their original context at Koh Ker before they were stolen.

Why hasn’t Cambodia previously claimed the statue? Internal Sotheby’s emails cited in the federal suit suggest an answer. A scholar initially warned Sotheby’s not to offer the statue for sale publicly because it was “definitely stolen” from Koh Ker. But she changed her stance after consulting with Cambodian officials:

…There are no plans at all for Cambodia or the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh to attempt to ask for anything at the [deleted] Museum or the [deleted] etc. They would also have to ask for Khmer material in the [deleted], and they want to continue to get French support.

It appears that Cambodia was reluctant to risk access to foreign aide over a fight for its stolen cultural heritage. But this calculus may be changing.

This raises an interesting question: Should the Norton Simon and other museums with such objects wait to see if they are sued in federal court? Or should they move to return stolen objects on their own initiative?

Norton Simon himself had an interesting take on that issue in that same New York Times article:

If it did some good, I would return it. If there were reason and probability that smuggling could be stopped, I would do it. It would do a lot to establish a constructive relationship between nations….Looting is a terribly destructive process. In cutting works out of temples, thieves mutilate them. Also, US Customs should not allow works into this country unless they have a total clearance from the countries of origin. If we could get such a clear cut certification to stop smuggling, I would send it back. If not, I’ll probably keep the piece.

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7 responses to “A Blast from the Past: “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol”

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