Sotheby’s auction house would do well to take seriously the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent decision to return two “kneeling attendants” statues to Cambodia, a legal expert on cultural preservation said yesterday.
Despite Sotheby’s statement that the Met’s decision had no bearing on the case against the auction house for the repatriation of the Duryodhana statue, Tess Davis, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, said the Met’s reasons for returning the statues absolutely should transfer to Sotheby’s.
“For a millennium, the kneeling attendants stood just feet away from the Duryodhana,” Davis told the Post via email. “The statues were only separated in the early years of the Cambodian Civil War, when an organised looting network trafficked them overseas piece by piece.
“The Met’s spokesman Harold Holzer has said the evidence of their theft was ‘dispositive’, she added. “Is it so hard for Sotheby’s to believe this same evidence will satisfy a judge?”
Lauding the Met for heeding the work of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient and “countless archaeologists, curators, journalists, officials, lawyers, and law enforcement agents”, Davis said that “unfortunately, a lot of other museums would not have, even when faced with such evidence”.
Over the weekend, Sotheby’s stated: “The Met’s voluntary agreement does not shed any light on the key issues in our case.”
“Even if that were the case – and it isn’t – ” Davis said, “this development does shed much light on the Met and Sotheby’s themselves as institutions. When presented with evidence these statues were war loot, the Met agreed to send them home, without waiting for a lawsuit or court order. Not Sotheby’s.
“We must ask – as Sotheby’s, I hope, asks itself – is it seeking to profit from Cambodia’s tragic conflict? But despite the auction house’s best efforts to silence Cambodia – and those working on its behalf – the truth is slowly but surely coming out.”
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction. An earlier version of this story said Tess Davis is an executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. She is in fact currently a researcher at the University of Glasgow.