By Brigitte Dusseau (AFP)
NEW YORK — For a year, an ancient Cambodian statue of a warrior has been at the center of a legal battle in New York in which US authorities back Cambodia's claim that the artwork was looted.
The standoff between Sotheby's auctioneers, who intended to sell the thousand-year-old statue, and the US government hardened on April 4 when a federal prosecutor in New York demanded its surrender.
For now, Sotheby's holds onto the work, but its future is unclear.
The US Attorney's office said in a statement that the "Duryodhana" statue was "stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia. The Koh Ker site is very significant from a religious, historical, and artistic perspective, and the Duryodhana is considered to be a piece of extraordinary value to the Cambodian people and part of their cultural heritage."
A court then ordered Sotheby's, which insists the statue valued at $2-3 million can be sold legitimately, not to sell or transfer the work.
The row blew up last year shortly before the planned March 24 auction, when Cambodia's government sent a letter through UNESCO claiming ownership over the 10th century work. Sotheby's stopped the sale.
"We saw their announcement (to put it on sale) before March 2011. Then, we sent an official letter asking Sotheby's to withdraw it from the sale because the statue was illegally trafficked out of the country. That's why they withdrew it," said Hab Touch, director general at Cambodia's Ministry of Culture. "Now we are working to bring it back."
The statue's origin is not under dispute: its pedestal and its ankles and feet remain at the site of the Koh Ker temple, northeast of Angkor Wat. It made a pair with another statue which is also in the United States, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
French archeologist Eric Bourdonneau said "many signs point to them being looted in the early 1970s," a period when Cambodia was in a civil war.
He termed the statue, which appeared in the West at a 1975 auction in London, exceptional, "one of the masterpieces of Angkorian art".
According to prosecutors, Sotheby's imported the statue in April 2010 "and made arrangement to sell the statue, despite knowing it was stolen from Koh Ker."
The complaint alleges that an expert asked by Sotheby's to write up the statue for the auction catalogue herself raised doubts over the legality.
But Sotheby's denied doing anything wrong, saying it "strongly disputes the allegations".
"This sculpture, which had been in the possession of a good faith owner who obtained good title almost forty years ago, was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared," the auction house said.
"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 1,000 years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint," it added.
Sotheby's said it had been in "active discussions" with the US and Cambodian governments and that the result was "disappointing".