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New Twist in Cambodia-Sotheby’s Khmer Sculpture Controversy

February 16, 2013
This 10th-century Khmer sculpture is at the heart of a pending lawsuit involving Sotheby's.

This 10th-century Khmer sculpture is at the heart of a pending lawsuit involving Sotheby’s.

The controversy over an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer sculpture has gotten a little more complicated.  Cambodian officials, according to the New York Times, want a Sotheby’s executive, “who sits on a State Department panel that advises that agency on cultural property issues [to] recuse herself from its deliberations on import restrictions for Cambodian antiquities.”

A quick recap of the situation: Sotheby’s planned to sell the statue in New York for an estimated $2-3 million during a March 24, 2011 auction.  Cambodian officials raised concerns about the work’s provenance and it was pulled from the sale.  Federal officials confiscated the work in April 2012 and Sotheby’s is now involved in litigation over the statue’s ownership.  Cambodian officials claim the statue, and possibly a companion piece now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, was looted during that country’s 1970’s-era civil war.  Sotheby’s counters there’s no proof, the statues could have been removed any time  in the past 1,000 years and they were legally exported into the US.  However, some anecdotal evidence has the statues in situ in the 1960’s.

According to the Times:

Him Chhem, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, said the executive, Jane A. Levine, faced a potential conflict because her auction house is embroiled with Cambodia in a lawsuit over the ownership of an ancient Khmer statue that Sotheby’s hopes to sell on behalf of the statue’s owner.

The panel, known as the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, held closed-door talks in October on the regulation of Cambodian and Khmer Empire cultural artifacts in Washington. It is scheduled to meet again this month and next.

State Department officials would not discuss whether Ms. Levine had recused herself. Susan R. Pittman, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said the fall meetings had been closed sessions. “As a result, we have no information to provide to you, including the attendance at the meeting,” she said.

In 1999 the State Department imposed emergency restrictions on cultural imports from Cambodia, which, beginning in 1970, had suffered catastrophic looting from its prized temples during decades of war, genocide and civil upheaval. The department negotiated a two-nation agreement in 2003 and renewed it in 2008. The agreements are reviewed every five years, and Cambodia hopes to extend the agreement from 2013 to at least 2018.

The existing agreement does not affect the Sotheby’s statue because the statue is known to have left Cambodia before the 1999 accord. Cambodia is seeking its return based on its own laws, which it says have banned the unauthorized removal of items like the statue for more than 100 years. Sotheby’s calls the laws “hopelessly ambiguous French colonial decrees” that have no force today.

In his letter the Cambodian minister praised Ms. Levine’s expertise but said, given the dispute, his government felt her recusal was appropriate.

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