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“the swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities”

March 18, 2012

Media reports about the repatriation of art work stolen by the Nazis and antiquities stolen from Italy, sadly, are not uncommon.  Familes and descendants of those whose possessions were confiscated and sold by the Nazis have spent decades battling museums and other collections in efforts to reclaim lost works — a process that has upended collections and made some auction houses million of dollars when some heirs sell their restituted works.  Meanwhile, The Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Art and other institutions have engaged in long term battles cum negotiations with Italian authorities that have resulted in the return of looted works to Italy.

Now comes this report about a monumental Khmer sculpture originally from present day Cambodia that officials from that country are trying to repatriate.  It was the lead piece in Sotheby’s March 24, 2011 sale of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, as noted in their press release and carried a pre-sale estimate of $2-3 million.

Khmer sandstone statue from Koh Ker, allegedly looted from Cambodia in the 1970's and offered for sale at Sotheby's New York auction of Indian and Southeast Asian art on March 24, 2011.

The work, described as an Athlete was said to have come from a European private collection.  The release says: “Acquired by the original owner over 40 years ago, the figure is mate to the Koh Ker athlete at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena that is almost identical in posture and physical appearance.”  The figure was largely intact except for parts of both arms and more importantly the feet. Last month, the New York Times reported on Cambodia’s efforts to retrieve the statue, which they say was looted during the Khmer Rouge’s 1970’s-era murderous political upheaval.  Sotheby’s claims there’s no proof the statue was stolen, and the Times, seeming to reflect some of the legal ambiguities of the situation, notes: “The quiet tussle over the relic reveals the swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities with incomplete or disputed pedigrees.”

Temple Wrestler, c. 925-50
Cambodia: Koh Ker (?), Angkor period, 900-975
61-3/4 in. (156.8 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation
© 2012 Norton Simon Art Foundation

The Times story goes on to note: “Archaeologists and Cambodian officials say the case of the footless statue is all the more poignant because of the country’s recent history of genocide and plunder, and because researchers have found the very pedestal and feet belonging to the artwork. The discovery was made in Koh Ker, 60 miles northeast of the Angkor Wat temple complex.”

The pedestal and feet belonging to a disputed thousand-year-old statue, currently held by Sotheby's, in Cambodia.Agnes Dherbeys for The New York Times.

The Illicit Cultural Property blog, Saving Antiquities for Everyone and others have additional reporting.

Koh Ker

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