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US takes Sotheby’s to task for delay tactics

Us prosecutors last week accused Sotheby’s of trying to further delay the government’s case to repatriate the 10th-century Khmer statue of a mythic Hindu warrior in the auction house’s possession.

Responding to Sotheby’s May 10 request that the court conduct a pre-trial hearing on the interpretation of relevant Cambodian law, the prosecutors argued that such a hearing would be “an entirely inefficient way to proceed” before all the facts had been determined.

“The appropriate course of action is to continue and complete fact discovery on all issues in the case,” write the prosecutors, who earlier this month demanded the case be tried by jury.

No date has been set for the trial, and despite the court’s rejection in March of Sotheby’s motion to dismiss, the auction house’s lawyers still hope to narrow the scope of the eventual hearing.

They argue that further fact-finding would be “time consuming and expensive” – and avoidable if the court were to determine in a pre-trial hearing that Cambodia did not own the statue under the French colonial laws in place when the statue left the country.

The US Attorneys, however, assert that “national ownership law is only one way in which a state can come to own an object”.

Another reason the statue was stolen, they say, is that the temple in the Koh Ker complex where it came from was “built by the Cambodian state under Jayavarman IV”, and “the Cambodian state has never transferred Koh Ker, the Prasat Chen temple, or the statue to any private owner”.

The US Attorneys have cited email correspondence between Sotheby’s and an art expect that indicates Sotheby’s knew the statue was looted.

Sotheby’s has denied such knowledge but also stated this month that “the legal issue does not turn on documents in Claimants’ possession, or on Claimants’ state of mind”.

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