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Looted Ancient Cambodian Statues are Repatriated

December 13, 2013
This 10th-century Khmer sculpture is at the heart of a pending lawsuit involving Sotheby's.

This 10th-century Khmer sculpture will be repatriated to Cambodia following a settlement agreement.

UPDATE: According to the Phnom Penh Post, the disputed statue at Sotheby’s along with one from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, have arrived back in Cambodia:

“They are Duryodhana and Bhima. One from Sotheby’s and another from Norton Simon. They will be transferred first to the Council of Ministers for official reception on June 3 and then transferred to the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, for restoration and exhibition to [the] public,” National Museum director Kong Vireak said.

The Duryodhana and the Bhima, which depict opposing Hindu warrior figures that were locked in a mythic battle, were displayed at the Prasat Chen Temple in Siem Reap before being hacked from their pedestals and moved through the antiquities black market in the 1970s.

Over the past three years, Cambodian officials and art researchers have traced seven of the Prasat Chen’s nine statues to collections in the US. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York agreed to return two statues pillaged from the temple, the first time a museum collection has voluntarily returned antiquities.

At the end of last year, Sotheby’s settled an embittered court case, agreeing to pay for the repatriation of a third statue.

The Norton Simon Museum in California pitched in a fourth statue, the Bhima, and earlier this month Christie’s announced it too would give back a Prasat Chen figure, which is set to return today, according to a government spokesman.

The Denver Art Museum has been quiet about a statue that Cambodian officials claim it holds, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has questioned the provenance claim of the Cambodian Hindu monkey god statue they currently have on exhibit, stating the museum as of yet has no plans to return the figure.

ORIGINAL POST: In a significant development, a settlement has been reached in the multi-year dispute between Sotheby’s and the Cambodian government about an allegedly looted 10th-century Khmer sculpture, according to the New York Times

The accord ends a long bare-knuckled court battle over the Khmer treasure, a 10th-century statue valued at more than $2 million. The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

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 entered into litigation over the statue’s ownership.  Cambodian officials claimed 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 countered 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.

Of the settlement, the Times reports:

The settlement, filed in United States District Court in Manhattan, declared that all sides agreed that additional litigation “would be burdensome and would require resolution of disputed factual issues and issues of U.S., Cambodian, French Colonial, and other law.”

The article also states that Cambodian officials are turning their attention to the statue at the Norton Simon Museum.

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