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In Cambodia – a Cultural Crime Scene?

March 2, 2013
The feet of the disputed Duryodhana statue in Cambodia, where they are now in a museum. The statue is with Sotheby’s. New York Times

The feet of the disputed Duryodhana statue in Cambodia, where they are now in a museum. The statue is with Sotheby’s. New York Times

The fate of a 10th Century Khmer statue from Cambodia, which Sotheby’s attempted to auction in March 2011 for up to $3 million, took another turn this week when Sharon Cohen Levin, the chief of the United States Attorney Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit, and a second federal lawyer, Alexander Wilson, visited the site from which the statue was allegedly stolen during Cambodia’s murderous political turmoil in the 1970’s.  According to the New York Times:

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 unusual four-day trip is the latest development in a court case involving the auction house and United States officials, who are trying to help Cambodia gain possession of the statue, which it contends was looted from the temple during the chaos of that country’s civil war.

Though United States officials have intervened on behalf of foreign governments in patrimony cases, experts on cultural heritage law said it was rare for federal lawyers to visit an archaeological site abroad as part of such an effort.

In 2011, 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.

Last month, Cambodian officials requested that Jane Levin, a Sotheby’s executive, recuse herself from the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the US State Department about import restrictions for Cambodian antiquities, amongst its duties.

Of the lawyers’ visit this week, the Times noted: “Cambodian and United Nations officials said the lawyers were there to collect evidence to bolster arguments that the statue was stolen in the early 1970s from a ransacked temple site in a complex known as Koh Ker.”


A federal judge is scheduled to rule in weeks on whether the government’s case to seize the statue can proceed to trial. In earlier arguments District Judge George B. Daniels has pressed prosecutors on what proof they had that the statue, called the Duryodhana, was taken in the 1970s.

The repatriation of looted antiquities has been successfully undertaken by Italy, Greece, Turkey and others, and the issue of looted Cambodian antiquities has been in the media for years.  But, it’s unclear if those arguing for repatriation will succeed in this instance.  According to the Times:

Some experts saw the move as a sign that the United States government is worried about its ability to prove how and when the statue was taken.

“They are very invested in this case, and it would be humiliating to lose,” said William G. Pearlstein, an arts lawyer in New York and a former member of the American Bar Association’s International Cultural Property Committee. “I think they underestimated the requirements of the judge in proving actual theft and Cambodian ownership.”

Others said the trip had a diplomatic component and showed the United States’ commitment to an important matter for the Cambodian government.

Evan T. Barr, a former federal prosecutor and now a partner with the New York law firm Steptoe & Johnson, said Ms. Levin’s trip, while not routine, made sense. “She is literally eyeballing the scene of the crime, so when she presents the case in court, she can speak from firsthand knowledge,” he said.

Koh Ker, Cambodia.

Koh Ker, Cambodia.

David L. Hall, an assistant United States attorney in Delaware who has handled many cultural heritage claims, said going abroad to looted sites had helped him win tough cases.

In one continuing case, in which federal lawyers in Missouri are trying to seize an ancient Egyptian mask known as the Ka-Nefer-Nefer from the St. Louis Art Museum, the lawyers did not travel overseas, according to Jan Diltz, a spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office in St. Louis.

Experienced cultural property lawyers, many of whom disagree over the merits of the Sotheby’s case, agreed that the trip’s high profile underscores the State Department’s view that cultural heritage issues are a major part of public diplomacy.

State Department officials had no comment on the visit.

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