Skip to content

Getting Dirtier in the “swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities”

April 5, 2012

A 2011 Sotheby's catalog shows a thousand-year-old statue believed to be from the Koh Ker temple in Cambodia.

There are multiple reports today (Reuters and NYTimes) saying US officials will confiscate a 1,000-year Khmer statue Sotheby’s had planned to auction last year before pulling it from the sale at the last minute.  The monumental figure was estimated to sell for $2-3 million, but was sidelined after Cambodian officials objected, saying the work had been looted.

The Times notes:

At the time Sotheby’s rejected Cambodia’s efforts to recover the Khmer antiquity, insisting there was no proof that it had been looted and therefore the auction was legal.

But in a series of internal e-mail exchanges obtained by investigators and included in the federal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court in New York, at least one Sotheby’s officer is depicted as having been told in 2010 by a scholar in Cambodian art that Cambodian officials considered the statue a looted artifact.

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 article goes on to say:

In a statement Sotheby’s said it disputed the allegations. “This sculpture was legally imported into the United States, and all relevant facts were openly declared,” the statement said. “We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last 1,000 years, nor is there any such evidence in this complaint.”

Temple Wrestler, c. 925-50, Cambodia: Koh Ker (?), Angkor period, 900-975
Sandstone, 61-3/4 in. (156.8 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1980.15.S
© 2012 Norton Simon Art Foundation

Well, apparently, there may be evidence the statue (and possibly a companion now in the Norton Simon in Pasadena), were still in situ in the 1960’s and perhaps even the 1970’s when it’s alleged the work was looted:

The federal government’s claim that the statue was looted during the Cambodian civil war rests partly on findings by a French archaeologist, Eric Bourdonneau, who reported that the work had been seen in place as recently as the 1960s, that a road built after 1965 provided the first easy access to the site, and that the piece did not appear on the art market until its first known sale in Britain in 1975.

The folks at Chasing Aphrodite have additional coverage along with the complaint filed by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

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.

Koh Ker

Meanwhile, the bloggers at the Cultural Property Observer, self described as: A WEB LOG CHAMPIONING THE LONGSTANDING INTERESTS OF COLLECTORS IN THE PRESERVATION, STUDY, DISPLAY AND ENJOYMENT OF CULTURAL ARTIFACTS AGAINST AN “ARCHAEOLOGY OVER ALL” PERSPECTIVE, weighed in to support Sotheby’s:

My advice to Sotheby’s would be to fight. Experience teaches that press reports sourced to the archaeological lobby may not provide either a complete or accurate depiction of the actual strength of the Government’s case.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: