‘Sotheby’s Tried To Sell $3m Khmer Statue – And Knew It Was Stolen’April 6, 2012
But it’s certainly not bringing any comfort to the world-famous auctioneers following allegations it put the statue up for sale despite knowing it had been stolen from a temple in the ancient Khmer capital of Koh Ker, some 120km north-east of Angkor Wat.
Yesterday, US federal agents announced they would seize the disputed artifact from Sotheby’s in New York and try to return it to its rightful home in Cambodia.
In their civil action, prosecutors say the sandstone sculpture, known as the Duryodhana, and valued at up to $3m, was looted “during periods of extreme unrest” in Cambodia in the 1960s or 1970s. They claim it was then illegally imported into Europe and then the US.
They say there is “probable cause to believe” the statue is stolen property and “Sotheby’s knowingly imported it into the US knowing that it had been stolen, converted, or taken by fraud”.
Their case is partly based on research by Eric Bourdonneau, an archaeologist at the French School for Far Eastern Studies, who says pictures taken of Prasat Chen, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, where the Duryodhana once stood, show the site largely intact as recently as the 1960s. After 1965 a road was built through Kulen Mountain giving looters easier access to the remote jungle area, he adds.
The US prosecutors’ claims are strongly denied by Sotheby’s, which says there is no proof it had been looted, or evidence to specify “when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last 1,000 years”. The company said it is “disappointed” by the action and plans “to defend it vigorously”.
“This sculpture was legally imported into the US and all relevant facts were openly declared,” it added.
However, according to papers filed in the United States District Court in New York on Wednesday, a series of internal emails show at least one of Sotheby’s officers knew it was a stolen artifact. They also reveal discussions about how best to sell the item without drawing too much attention and alerting the Cambodian government.
The unnamed officer had even written about the likelihood of bad press from “temple huggers” if the 268-year-old company proceeded with the auction.
The US court documents say the statue’s first known sale was in 1975 – the year the Khmer Rouge seized power – when a Belgian private collector bought it from a UK auction house. The sales invoice stated it was Khmer, of Koh Ker-style, and from the 10th century.
In 2007, a conservation worker found two pedestals at the entrance to the western pavilion at Prasat Chen, and noticed that feet were still attached. One of the statues that had been broken off at the ankles was the Duryodhana.
The matching sculpture – which the Cambodian government has so far made no claim over – is at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
In March 2010, the owner’s heirs held discussions with Sotheby’s about selling the Duryodhana at its New York auction in September that year.
Sotheby’s then imported it into the US. They asked the owners to sign an affidavit for US customs officials, stating that “to the best of our knowledge”, the statue “was not cultural property documented as appertaining to the inventory of a museum or religious or secular monument or similar institution in Cambodia.”
In June 2010, an unnamed Khmer art expert employed by Sotheby’s to write up the catalogue blurb and give a lecture on the 500lb statue wrote to the auctioneers, saying he or she had “serious concerns” about selling it – and questioned whether Sotheby’s wanted “this kind of potential problem”.
“I do not think that you should sell the Duryodhana at a public auction,” the email warned. “The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ.”
The academic asked whether the owner might want to offer it back to the National Museum of Cambodia as a gesture of goodwill to save everyone embarrassment, the court documents say.
But on June 28, the scholar had a change of heart after contacting “culture spies” in Phnom Penh, saying it was probably safe to sell the Duryodhana because Cambodia wasn’t requesting the return of looted artifacts. Instead, it was concentrating on stopping current looting and smuggling.
“I think that Sotheby’s can therefore go ahead and plan to sell the Koh Ker Guardian, but perhaps not good to show or mention the feet still in situ at Koh Ker in the catalogue,” the expert wrote.
Sotheby’s decided to put the sale back to March 2011, and discussed whether they should inform the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts. After consultations with its legal department, the auction house asked the academic to share information on the statue with the minister.
“If he doesn’t react adversely (within a time span of 7-10 days), then we will first celebrate and then immediately go ahead,” the officer’s email said. The scholar wrote back, warning “it would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull”.
In November, Sotheby’s wrote to the minister saying they were selling the item, but they did not get a reply and so proceeded with the sale, the court papers say.
An internal email highlighted the risks Sotheby’s faced with the planned auction – pointing out how the sculpture was to feature on the catalogue cover, and “is known to have come from a specific site in Cambodia and for which we only have provenance from 1975”.
On the day of the sale, the Cambodian government contacted Sotheby’s through UNESCO, saying “it is believed that this statue was illegally removed from the site.” It said the Duryodhana was of “tremendous historical and archaeological value” and demanded its return.
Sotheby’s withdrew the item, but kept hold of the sculpture as negotiations continued. That is until today, when it was due to be impounded by agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security.
US Attorney Preet Bharara said: “The Duryodhana statue is imbued with great meaning for the people of Cambodia. With today’s action we are taking an important step toward reuniting this ancient artifact with its rightful owners.”
It remains to be seen whether the treasured statue will return to Cambodia, or end up gathering dust in a millionaire’s mausoleum after being sold like a souvenir to the highest bidder.
But as Duryodhana literally means “hard to fight”, it is certainly living up to its name. Bosses at Sotheby’s must be secretly wishing they’d never taken on the mythological warrior in the first place.