Statue returns to rightful home

2012-03-01 11:21

Multinational auction house Sotheby’s is working to help return an ancient statue to Cambodia after the government claimed it had been illegally removed from the country decades ago.

The auction house said yesterday it took the 1 000-year-old relic off the auction block a day before a sale scheduled for March 24 2011, after Cambodia sent a letter asking Sotheby’s to do so and arrange for its return.

The 1.5-metre tall sandstone sculpture of a mythical warrior in an elaborate headdress had been estimated to sell for up to $3 million.

Sotheby’s identified the seller as a European collector who purchased the work from a London dealer in 1975, almost two decades before a 1993 Cambodia law prohibited the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission.

The auction house said it informed Cambodia about the statue in writing months before the sale, in November 2010.

Jane Levine, senior vice-president and worldwide compliance director for Sotheby’s, said the government did not respond until March 23, 2011, a day before the auction, when the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO contacted the auction house on Cambodia’s behalf.

Cambodia “did not allege that the statue constituted stolen property, did not identify any basis to contest the owner’s title to the property and did not allege that it would be unlawful for Sotheby’s to sell the statue or that Cambodia owned the statue,” said Levine.

The Associated Press was not immediately able to obtain the letter.

In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, an official in charge of Ministry of Culture’s heritage department confirmed that Cambodia had sent a letter asking for the statue’s sale to be halted.

The official, Hab Touch, said the 10th-century statue was looted from the Koh Ker temple. He had no details on when it was taken or who allegedly took it, saying only that it had been smuggled abroad.
The story was first reported in New York Times yesterday.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that it was working closely with the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and the Cambodian government “to look into the matter and determine the proper course of action.”

Spokeswoman Danielle Bennett declined yesterday to answer further questions, citing the ongoing investigation.

After the seller and Sotheby’s voluntarily withdrew the statue from the sale, the auction house said it asked Cambodia to come up with a solution agreeable to both parties.

In May, Cambodia endorsed a plan to seek a buyer to purchase the statue and donate it to Cambodia. It subsequently identified a Hungarian antiquities collector as a potential buyer, with whom Sotheby’s has been in talks, the auction house said.

“We are also very interested in hearing from anyone else who would be interested in participating in such a sale process,” added Levine, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor who was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee last year.

“Sotheby’s would like to find a solution that is fair to both Cambodia and to the owner who bought the sculpture in good faith almost 40 years ago.”

Cambodian diplomatic officials in the United States were not immediately available for comment yesterday.
Anne LeMaistre, a Phnom Penh-based UNESCO representative who is involved in the talks, told The Times “buying back such items can seem distasteful, but sadly it is not unusual when the country’s aim is return of the property.”

The work is one of a pair of statues from a temple in Koh Ker, north of the famous Angkor Wat complex of temples.

Archeologists have matched the footless statue to a pedestal and feet at a Cambodian archaeological site.
The other statue has been at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, since 1980, and also has been matched to its base at the site.

Many ancient artifacts were looted and damaged in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country.

Eric Bourdonneau, the archaeologist who matched both statues to their pedestals, told the Times the relics were looted in the early 1970s.

Levine said Sotheby’s was aware before accepting the statue for sale that it had come from Koh Ker.

But she said it did not know when and how it was removed “as the circumstances of that are to date unknown.”

She said the statue was purchased in “good faith” and exported long before the 1993 Cambodian law was passed, “and Cambodia has not claimed otherwise.”

Levine said a law dating to the 1920s may have provided certain export restrictions but did not nationalize ownership of Cambodian relics, and therefore could not retroactively “redefine clearly established legal title rights.”

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Buying a puppy? Don’t get scammed!

Hundreds of complaints are filed every year from victims who were scammed when buying a dog online.



WATCH: These funny animal videos will make you LOL!
11 animals before and after they were adopted from shelters
Competition pet grooming – creative or too extreme?
5 Celebrities who are afraid of animals
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.