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Sotheby’s case ‘Cambodian metaphor in stone’

Tess Davis of the University of Glasgow goes eye to eye with an Apsara dancer.
Tess Davis of the University of Glasgow goes eye to eye with an Apsara dancer.

Sotheby’s case ‘Cambodian metaphor in stone’

One of the people involved with the case of the looted Duryodhana statue is Tess Davis, a researcher, School of Social and Political Sciences at Scotland’s University of Glasgow. Davis agreed to answer a few questions for the Post about the Duryodhana case that involves a statue taken from Cambodia during the 1970s that was ready to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on behalf of a Belgian client, but which is now in litigation in the US courts and is likely to be returned to Cambodia. Davis, a self-described archaeologist turned lawyer turned academic, articulated her passion about the artifact and in general for the return of looted antiquities.

How did the Sotheby’s case first come to your attention?
In the 1980s and ’90s, at least three looted antiquities were returned to Cambodia, after having gone on Sotheby’s auction block. Journalist Peter Watson and others believed these were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I conducted my own research on this topic in the 2000s, but believed myself the company had improved its behaviour following the 2003 US-Cambodia bilateral agreement. I was wrong. I learned in 2011 that Sotheby’s was attempting to sell the Duryodhana, fully knowing the statue’s feet were still here in Cambodia. Luckily, the New York Times learned this as well, and broke the story in February of 2012.

How did it begin to unfold?
The Duryodhana was set to hit the auction block in March 2011, but Cambodia intervened and stopped the sale. The Kingdom then gave Sotheby’s a year to do the right thing. They didn’t. So Cambodia rightfully enlisted the help of the US Department of Justice, which filed a civil forfeiture action on Cambodia’s behalf in April 2012.

When and how did you first get interested in Cambodian antiquities?
Cambodia may just be the love of my life. I first came here a decade ago on an archaeological survey and saw first-hand the devastation that looting has wreaked on Cambodia’s ancient sites. That experience inspired me to go to law school and make this issue the focus of my career.

What’s the current status of the case?
Sotheby’s has requested a pretrial conference solely on the Cambodian law. The US had strongly objected to this move, which they’ve stated is just another attempt by the auction house to delay discovery. But the case may well go to trial within the year.

Do you think the statue will be returned to Cambodia?
The Kingdom has the law – and more importantly the truth – on its side. So I have faith the Duryodhana will return home eventually. But Sotheby’s is fighting very hard to prevent that from happening. I believe their resistance comes from desperation: the era in which they can hawk war loot from countries like Cambodia, with no consequences, is over. And they can’t accept it.

Other auction houses appear to be changing with the times, at least where Cambodian antiquities are concerned. For example, Christie’s has sold works of contemporary Khmer artists in Phnom Penh, and donated the proceeds to not-for-profit organisations working to support the arts in Cambodia. It was a win-win for everyone.

What was the role of local law firms in this case?
Local attorneys have a done invaluable work to support the Kingdom’s claims in this case. Sotheby’s has – and continues to – put out a great deal of misinformation about Cambodian law in court filings and the press. They are hoping the court and the public will believe these legal inventions. If and when this case goes to trial, I look very forward to Managing Partner Matthew Rendall, of Cambodian firm Sciaroni & Associates, correcting them, and demonstrating that the Duryodhana is – and always has been – Cambodia’s property under the law.


What’s the significance of these antiquities for Cambodia, past, present and future?
The tableau of Prasat Chen was complete for a millennium. But like so many Cambodian families, it was violently broken apart during the civil war, and scattered to the ends of the earth. That is why this case is so important: it is a metaphor in stone for Cambodia’s suffering and now recovery. Anyone who thinks this is just about money, or even art, has no sense of history.

Are there any issues that are on your mind that you want to speak about? What are they?
I like to believe and hope that other museums will follow the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s lead and do the right thing. No reputable institution wants war loot on display, nor any reputable individual. This is an opportunity for the world to start righting some of the many wrongs that were done to Cambodia during the civil war. These statues were stolen in the worst possible way, during the worst possible time. How can anyone want to be even a small part of that?

What did they accomplish at the World Heritage Committee? Was it important for Cambodia?
I was lucky enough to be at the opening ceremony of the World Heritage Committee, in which the Met officially returned the Pandava brother statues to the Kingdom. This was a proud moment for Cambodia and a great success. Delegates from more than a hundred countries were able to enjoy Cambodia’s hospitality and see how highly this country values its heritage.

The fact that Cambodia joined the World Heritage Convention in 1991, when it was still in the midst of recovering from war and occupation, demonstrates the importance the government places on heritage. Heritage is a great ambassador for Cambodia, and through it, Cambodia is showing the world there is so much more to it than the Killing Fields.

What are Cambodia’s challenges for the future in preserving their antiquities?
Protecting archaeological sites in the modern world is difficult under the best conditions, and even more so for Cambodia, which is still recovering from the civil war and its aftermath. But despite the country’s modern history and the challenges it still faces, Cambodia has always made preservation a priority. Its successes on this front are remarkable, even if much remains to be done. But Cambodia has an estimated 4,000 known prehistoric and historic sites in the country and that number is constantly expanding as new discoveries are made each year. There is no way the government – that any government – could physically secure them all. So long as collectors and museums are willing to buy looted Khmer art, Cambodia’s sites will remain at risk. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

The website associated with stopping the looting of antiquities that Davis is associated with is: www.traffickingculture.org


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