Ending a two-year legal battle, Sotheby’s capitulated last week and agreed to return to Cambodia an ancient sandstone statue valued at more than $2 million.
The hotly debated 10th-century warrior was plundered from Cambodia’s Koh Ker temple complex in the midst of the Khmer Rouge reign in the 1970s and resurfaced on the front of an auction catalogue in 2011.
UNESCO officers identified the 500-pound artifact, known as the Duryodhana, 36 hours before it was scheduled to hit the market and convinced Cambodian authorities to request its repatriation.
In Thursday’s settlement, obtained by the New York Times, the auction house, the consignor and federal officials agreed the antiquity will be shipped to Cambodia within 90 days.
“It’s wonderful news that after more than four decades away from Cambodia, the statue will be returning home,” Ek Tha, a Cambodian government spokesman, said.
Tha said he was not aware of the exact date of the statue’s impending return or the government’s plans for it, but said a meeting would take place soon.
“At the end of the day, it is up to my government and cultural and archaeological experts to determine what happens to the statue,” he said.
Earlier this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art also voluntarily returned two Cambodian cultural artifacts from the same temple as the Duryodhana.
“The MET really set a precedent, but what’s different about this case is that [this statue] wasn’t listed in the [Cambodian] national inventory,” Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO country director, said.
“It was a looted item, yet we could prove that it was stolen from Cambodia . . . so if we can prove a piece was looted, we now know we can get it back.”
Preservationists hope that as a result of the Duryodhana’s repatriation, many more Khmer treasures will find their way back to the Kingdom in coming years.
Officials from the Norton Simon Museum in California, which houses the Duryodhana’s sandstone twin, are already in talks with the government and plan to make a trip to Cambodia early next year, according to Lemaistre.