Sotheby’s has responded to the U.S. government’s amended complaint in the legal battle for the Khmer warrior from Koh Ker, arguing that the US Attorney’s failure to cite a Cambodian national ownership law is a”fatal flaw” in their effort to seize the allegedly stolen statue.
[See our previous coverage of the case here.]
“The [government's amended complaint filed recently] claims a Cambodian king a thousand years ago built the Prasat Chen temp where the Statue’s feet were allegedly found, and asserts the Statue…therefore automatically belongs to the modern Cambodian state. No court has ever forfeited property on such a theory, which squarely conflicts with the settled and undisputed law articulated in McClain and Schultz,” which both required a “clear and unambiguous” national ownership law, Sotheby’s stated.
Sotheby’s arguments focus squarely on the legal foundation of Cambodia’s claim and largely sidestep the government’s amended complaint, which alleged the auction house was deceitful about the statue’s origins in omitting the role of Bangkok-based collector Douglas Latchford. Those claims are an effort to “change the subject,” Sotheby’s said in its response, accusing the government of using selective quotations from internal auction house emails revealed during discovery.
To support that position, Sotheby’s helpfully attached those internal emails to its response as exhibits, giving us an unusual glimpse into the vetting process used by leading auction houses with a piece of ancient art they knew would raise legal and public relations concerns.
The Sotheby’s emails reveal for the first time the identities of several key players in the drama:
Zara Porter-Hill, Head of the Indian and SE Asian Department at Sotheby’s London. She corresponded directly with collector Douglas Latchford about the statue’s origins. Latchford initially told her he had the statue in London in 1970, but later claimed that Spink must have purchased the statue in Bangkok. (See Exhibit 3)
Henry Howard-Sneyd, Vice Chairman of Asian Art at Sotheby’s, was asked to be the point of contact between Sotheby’s and the government of Cambodia before the statue’s proposed sale. He demurred, saying, “we simply wanted to be informing him out of politeness and did not want to raise this to important or ‘pay attention’ levels.” (See Exhibit 9). Ultimately it appears that contact with the Cambodians was handled by Jane Levine, head of Worldwide Compliance for Sotheby’s and a former prosecutor of antiquities cases in the same US Attorney’s office now suing for the statue’s return. (see Exhibit 12.)
John Twilley: A conservation expert hired by Sotheby’s to examine the statue after questions were raised about its authenticity. Twilley noted that the difference in condition between the head and body suggested the statue may have been purposefully broken ”for ease of transport” from the site where it was found (See Exhibit 7) Ironically, Twilley was also an expert at the Getty workshop on the looted statue of Aphrodite, which was broken by smugglers for ease of transport.
Pieter Meyers: A former senior scientist at LACMA, Meyers conducted an analysis of the statue’s stone, confirming the link between the statue’s head and its torso. (See Ex. 8)
Hab Touch: The Cambodian government official who Sotheby’s debated notifying before the statue’s sale. (see Exhibit 10) Dismissed as a “bureaucrat,” Touch ultimately objected to the statue’s sale and asked for its return to Cambodia.
Below we’ve embedded Sotheby’s response followed by the exhibits we’ve referred to above.