Auction house Sotheby’s deliberately misled the US government as to the provenance of a looted Angkorian statue, the US Attorney argued last week.
In a letter sent to court on Wednesday and obtained over the weekend, the government lawyer – who has been battling Sotheby’s for the 10th-century Duryodhana statue on behalf of the Cambodian government – writes that the auction house provided “false and misleading information … in an effort to prevent the Government from obtaining the true facts regarding the theft of the Duryodhana.”
The US has long maintained that Sotheby’s was aware of the statue’s suspect origins. The sandstone statue of the mythic Hindu warrior stood at Prasat Chen temple for more than a millennia before it was allegedly pulled from its base in 1972 and smuggled to Thailand.
When the government began investigating the case in 2011, attorney Preet Bharara explains, a government investigator asked Sotheby’s whether it had information on the statue’s origins. The director of compliance wrote in an email that the auction house had identified two people who “presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s”.
If true, the information would undermine Cambodia’s claim that the statue had been looted during the Lon Nol era.
But the pair, in fact, were “the original seller of the piece, who conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen (the “Collector”), and Sotheby’s own retained art expert, who was herself was a longtime associate of the Collector,” writes Bahara.
“The information provided by [director of compliance Jane A.] Levine was simply false,” Bharara continues. “In short, Sotheby’s chief compliance officer provided false and misleading provenance information to the Government while discouraging the Government from obtaining the documents that ultimately showed that asserted provenance to be false.”
Sotheby’s did not reply to a request for comment, but according to the New York Times, the auction house filed a letter in which lawyers say that any suggestion it had willfully provided innacurate information was “demonstrably not true”.