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US pushes for return of Angkor-era statues

As wrangling within the US courts continues over an Angkorian statue held by Sotheby’s New York auction house, those seeking the repatriation of Cambodian artifacts have broadened their gaze.

The US Attorneys' Office is now assisting Cambodia with a recent request for the return of a matching statue, another 10th-century sandstone warrior from Preah Vihear province’s Koh Ker temple complex, which has been displayed in Norton Simon Museum in California since 1980, lawyer Matthew Rendall said.

“Discussions with the museum are taking place,” said Rendall, who has filed statements supporting the US suit against Sotheby’s.

The Norton Simon Museum’s response has been “somewhat positive”, he added, so legal recourse like that sought against Sotheby’s may not be necessary.

In April, the US attorneys office filed a landmark lawsuit on behalf of Cambodia seeking the return of the Angkorian empire-era statue.

Cambodia is also seeking the return of two Koh Ker statues given to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art more than two decades ago, UNESCO country director Anne LeMaistre said, adding that UNESCO is focusing on return of the statue from Sotheby’s to set the precedent.

While many artifacts have been returned to Cambodia in the past two decades, Rendall said these others were returned “almost on moral grounds”, and the Sotheby’s case would be groundbreaking because it seeks return “on legal grounds”.

These grounds – that the statues were looted during the upheaval of the 1970s – are more difficult to argue, because the figures do not appear in a 1965 inventory of Koh Ker.

While LeMaistre and others who support the statues’ return say they were covered by overgrown vegetation at the time, Sotheby’s lawyers rejected “the speculation that this five foot tall, three foot wide object (and its equally large twin) must have been hidden” in a September 17 statement requesting the case’s dismissal.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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