A legal battle in the US over the fate of a 10th-century Khmer statue has heated up, with federal prosecutors accusing the international auction house Sotheby’s of lying about its provenance in an effort to sell it for millions of dollars.
Prosecutors in New York say that when the statue was being imported to the US in 2010, Sotheby’s told the owner to file an inaccurate affidavit to customs officials. They claim that both Sotheby’s and the statue’s owner knew the statue had been stolen from the Koh Ker temple complex in the early 1970s.
The statue of the mythic Hindu warrior, known as the Duryodhana, is thought to be worth at least $3 million, and was described by prosecutors in their April, 2012 suit filed on behalf of the Cambodian government as having “extraordinary value as a piece of the cultural heritage of the Cambodian people”.
It was due to be auctioned in March, 2011, but the sale was put on hold after Cambodia objected and asked for it to be returned. The latest US government filing says Sotheby’s provided “inaccurate information to potential buyers, to Cambodia and to the US”.
On Tuesday, Sotheby’s denied the new accusations, saying the US government was attempting “to tar Sotheby’s with a hodge-podge of other allegations designed to create the misimpression that Sotheby’s acted deceptively in selling the statue... that is simply not true.”
The crux of the case concerns when precisely the statue was removed from Cambodia, and whether laws in force at the time would have prevented its removal. Museums and buyers will generally not buy antiquities without a pre-1970 provenance.
The prosecutors quote an internal Sotheby’s email that says the Duryodhana is “known to have come from a specific site in Cambodia and for which we only have provenance from 1975”.
US government investigators say the Duryodhana was looted from the Koh Ker temple complex, in northwestern Cambodia, in 1972.
Bangkok-based art collector Douglas Latchford has told the New York Times he is the person the US government says sold the statue to a London dealer.
He said his name was listed on the dealer’s original ownership papers because, without his knowledge, the company had used his funds for “accounting purposes” to buy the statue.
Tess Davis, a University of Glasgow researcher focused on the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities who has been advising the government on the case, told the Post:
“Even if we give the auction house the benefit of the doubt regarding the complaint’s allegations, and we should, Sotheby’s now knows the Duryodhana was looted during the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer people want it returned home.
“To me, the most important question is not what Sotheby’s did in the past, but why they don’t do the right thing today.”
In September, a federal judge expressed scepticism about the US’s case, saying Cambodia lacked “clear ownership established by clear and unambiguous language”.
To contact the reporter on this story: Rupert Winchester at [email protected]