Tag Archives: Jane Levine

Blood Antiquities: After Lengthy Fight, Sotheby’s Agrees to Return Looted Khmer Statue

Sotheby’s and a private collector agreed on Thursday to forfeit a 10th century statue of a warrior to Cambodia, ending a lengthy legal fight that exposed the trafficking of looted Khmer antiquities to museums and collectors around the world.

The agreement states that Sotheby’s will transfer the statue of Duryodhana to Cambodia within 90 days in exchange for the U.S. government dropping a lawsuit brought on behalf of the Cambodian government. The suit claimed the auction house and Belgian collector Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa had attempted to sell the statue in 2011 despite their knowledge that it had been looted from a Cambodian temple. 

There was never any doubt about whether the statue had been looted, or where it had been found. As we wrote in April 2012, internal emails cited in the case revealed that Sotheby’s officials were warned by an expert that the statue had been stolen from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen, in Koh Ker, and that its public sale might lead to a legal claim.

“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…The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from,” wrote Emma Bunker, a leading expert on Khmer art and close associate of Douglas Latchford, the Bangkok dealer who allegedly bought it from looters and exported it from Thailand. “It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back,” she added. “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.”

Sotheby’s officials decided that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,’” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk,” internal emails showed.

Thursday’s agreement to forfeit the statue shows that calculation was decidedly wrong. Sotheby’s could have returned the statue to the collector and let her decide its fate, as auction houses have often done when claims arise. It also could have accepted a $1 million offer from a private collector who sought to buy the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Instead Sotheby’s opted to fight it out in court – at considerable cost to both its bank account and its reputation.

One of the lingering questions from the case is, why? Some have pointed to the personalities involved in the case, which pit the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York against Jane Levine, one of the former stars of its cultural property crimes unit who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. In a series of bare-knuckled filings, the government accused Levin of providing “false and misleading information to the Government.” Levin pushed back, accusing investigators of misleading the auction house about having probable cause for the statue’s seizure.

Another theory, floated this weekend at a UN-sponsored conference in Courmayeur by a prominent retired art crimes investigator, is that Sotheby’s may have taken on partial ownership of the statue. Why else would it spend what were likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending someone else’s problematic statue?

Regardless of the motive, the outcome of the case has cast a spotlight on a major trafficking network of looted Khmer antiquities. At the Courmayeur conference, researchers Tess Davis and Simon MacKenzie reported on their field work this summer mapping that very trafficking network, which was responsible for plunder of 10th and 11th century Khmer temples across northern Cambodia. Among the preliminary findings of the research was that Ta Mok, the senior Khmer Rouge leader known as The Butcher and Brother Number 5, may well have played a personal role in the removal of ancient statues from Koh Ker. This lends support to the notion that looted Khmer objects at museums around the world should be considered “blood antiquities.”

Attention now shifts to other Khmer statues likely acquired through the same smuggling network. Over the past year we and others have traced objects from Koh Ker and other sites that passed through the hands of Douglas Latchford before ending up in museums across the United States and Europe. The case for the return of those objects has now grown much stronger.

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In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return its two Khmer Kneeling Attendants, which it acquired from Latchford and other donors. The decision was reached after museum officials traveled to Cambodia and were presented with “dispositive” evidence of the statues’ illicit origins. The Met continues to possess several other objects tied to Latchford that have not been returned.

Officials from the Norton Simon will soon travel to Cambodia to discuss the museum’s statue of Bima, whose feet remain in the Koh Ker temple next to those of its companion, the Durydhana that Sotheby’s has just agreed to return. The Bima was purchased in 1976 from New York dealer William H. Wolff. The museum may well consider the words of its founder. When asked about repatriation of looted antiquities, Norton Simon once told the New York Times: “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.”

Cambodia has indicated it is preparing to makes similar claims against Khmer statues tied to Latchford at the Kimbell Museum, the Cleveland Museum and the Denver Art Museum. Many more exist in private collections.

The owners of these blood antiquities would be wise to learn from Sotheby’s experience and not wait for a demand from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Here’s the stipulation Sotheby’s signed on December 12th agreeing to the statue’s return.

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

Duryodhanna

Last week the tables were turned on the U.S. government as documents filed in court by Sotheby’s revealed the private deliberations of American investigators, whose zeal for the return of an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer statue often appears to exceed that of Cambodian officials.

In December, we wrote that filings in the court battle between the U.S. government and Sotheby’s over the statue had revealed the inner workings of the top international auction house. Last November we described how the case had revealed the underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade.

Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn. The exhibits, obtained through discovery in late August and attached to a Sept. 9th Sotheby’s motion for judgment, provide a rare window into the investigation of a major international cultural property case whose outcome will likely hold sway for years. The emails detail how Interpol officials worked close with Brent Easter, an investigator of cultural property crimes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to build a legal rationale for the statue’s seizure on behalf of Cambodia. The process eventually involved officials at the U.S. Department of State, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government. At one point, Easter asked Cambodian officials to stop negotiating with Sotheby’s for the statue’s voluntary return so that the U.S. government could purse its legal case against the auction house.

Read the correspondence:

Sotheby’s cites the records in asking the judge for a ruling on the case without the need for further discovery. The auction house says Easter claimed to have probable cause for seizure of the statue when in fact he was still scrambling to cobble together a legal theory to support Cambodia’s claim. The auction house also cites an expert on French law in arguing that the government’s legal theory — which relies in part on colonial-era decrees for Cambodia’s ownership claim — is bogus.

Read Sotheby’s motion:

The government rebuts Sotheby’s motion in a Sept. 11th letter to the judge, arguing, among other things, that “Sotheby’s provided false and misleading information to the Government.” To support its claim, the government cites a March 22, 2011 email between ICE’s Easter and Jane Levine, a former assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York specialized in cultural property crimes who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. Easter asked Levine whether Sotheby’s had “solid provenance information” for the statue. Levine said they did, noting Sotheby’s had “identified two individuals who presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s.”

SothebyRather than take Levine at her word, Easter pursued the original documentation for the statue, which had been passed from the London auction house Spink and Sons to Christies. Remarkably, the Spink records indicate the statue was stolen from the Cambodian temple of Prasat Chen in 1972, according to the government letter. This is the first hint of documentary evidence to support the government’s claim of the statue’s theft. What else might be contained in the archives of Spink, which was dealer Douglas Latchford‘s  primary pass through for allegedly looted Khmer antiquities? Could this archive also be the source of the “dispositive evidence” of looting cited by the Met in its recent return of two looted Khmer attendants to Cambodia?

Read the government’s letter:

As it turns out, the two individuals Levine cited were Latchford, who the government alleges “conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen,” and his colleague Emma Bunker, who later told Sotheby’s the statue was “definitely stolen.” Not exactly disinterested parties, and the government accuses Levine of deception: “The information provided by Levine was simply false.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct 14th. 

Inside Sotheby’s: Auction House Response Reveals Key Players in Fight Over Khmer Statue

SothebySotheby’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:

1354101788635Anu Ghosh-Mazumdar, Assistant VP, Indian and SE Asian Art at Sotheby’s. Most directly responsible for coordinating the statue’s vetting and sale.

f10sindconladyZara 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)

16_March_Henry_press_previewHenry 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.)

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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)

hab2Hab 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.

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: