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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer statues likely to come home

Khmer statues likely to come home

4 duryodana

Two important statues of the Hindu deity Duryodhana that stood as spiritual guardians for more than a thousand years at one of the gateways in the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Preah Vihear province are likely to be returned to Cambodia.

One of the Hindu statues is in the possession of a museum in California that has indicated it would be returning it to Cambodia, while the other is the subject of a court battle involving a Belgian collector and Sotheby’s auction house.

The Prasat Chen temple complex at Koh Ker, which includes a pyramid, was once the seat of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 under the reign of the kings Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman II and has been on the tentative UNESCO world heritage list since 1992.

The one in New York had been intended to be sold by auction house Sotheby’s by a private collector in Belgium only to be challenged by the US Attorney’s office which is acting on behalf of Cambodia, which it contends is the rightful owner.

Legal advisors Sciaroni & Associates’ Managing Partner Matt Rendall has been actively involved in the case which is now on its way to trial.

Rendall may be asked to testify at the trial in New York. He believes there’s a good chance the statue will be returned to Cambodia.

The statue in question is a Hindu deity called Duryodhana and once stood on a pedestal near the entry to the western pavilion at Prasat Chen and the feet of that statue remain there today.

The statue is believed to have been looted from the temple during the periods of unrest in the 1970s. In 1975, a Belgian private collector purchased the Duryodhana from an auction house in the United Kingdom.

According to the laws of French Indochina and Cambodia, the statue has been the legal property of Cambodia. That’s the contention of the US Attorney’s office, which filed a complaint on April 4, 2012, with the statue itself as the defendant.

The complaint says the 10th Century sandstone statue was illicitly removed from Prasat Chen Temple and that it is subject to forfeiture because it is stolen property that was brought into the United States in violation of the law.

Thus, the United States is contending that the owner of the statue is Cambodia.

The case came to Rendall from an archaeologist friend who had been working with an antiquities protection NGO who contacted him saying the US Attorney’s office wanted someone in Cambodia for assistance and research on the case.

“They wanted somebody to provide testimony on property laws relating to antiquities and this is largely to do with illustrating that the law here provides that these artifacts belonged to the state at the time they were taken, and to acquire such artifacts you needed the permission of the state,” Rendall said.

Rendall and his team hired people to translate laws from the French Protectorate period of Cambodian history to put together expert testimony and submitted 60 pages to support the prosecution’s case.

Archaeologist Tess Davis has been instrumental in the case, according to Rendall. The other statue from the same temple that ended up in a museum in Los Angeles should be on its way back to Cambodia soon, Rendall said.

“The museum has agreed apparently to hand it back to Cambodia,” he said.

The one in New York is pending trial.

“Sotheby’s is saying it was removed legally and they have no reason to give it up, and the US Attorneys are arguing otherwise, and we are supporting the US attorney’s case,” Rendall said.

“The defence went for a motion to dismiss, and they lost on that, and it is going to trial. The American court found there is a case to be heard. In the Southern District of New York, US is the plaintiff, and the sculpture itself is the defendant. They’re actually suing the object itself.”

Rendall, who has a Cambodian wife and family and first came to Cambodia as a lawyer representing Cambodian asylum-seeking boat people, says the US government is spending a lot of taxpayer’s money to get the statue back to Cambodia.

“This was an initiative of the US government,” Rendall said. “The artifact is being held by Sotheby’s and once it goes into the custody of the US government, the US government will return it to Cambodia. I’m fairly confident it will be returned to Cambodia.

“The Belgian family themselves could even return it in concert with Sotheby’s. In any event I’m fairly confident it will eventually end up back in Cambodia.”

Rendall says details are starting to emerge about how the artifact was first taken from Cambodia. Even though the case is on its way to trial, Rendall has doubts that a trial will happen. In many such cases, rather than be brought to trial, the clients settle out of court.

“I would actually be surprised if it went to trial. The tide is turning against the antiquities trade,” he said.

“As far as we’re concerned, this artifact rightfully belongs to Cambodia,” he said. “There is something to be said for at least recognising dominion.For the Cambodian people themselves, their ancestors made these artifacts, so at least the dominion needs to be recognised. Let’s have the control with the Cambodian people.”

Rendall’s expectation is that the sandstone statue will ultimately come back to Cambodia.

“Our expectation is that it will ultimately come back and not be held by a private person. The rightful owners should have a say. As someone who has a Cambodian wife, I feel strongly about it,” he said.

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