One of the powerful symbols of the gulf separating museums and source communities are the fragments of sculpture which populate so many galleries. It is the best interest of these museums and the source communities to cooperate when possible, which makes the news from Cambodia welcome.
This 7th-century Khmer head has been in the possession of the Museé Guimet for almost 130 years. But now the Art Newspaper reports the statue and the rest of the statue will be reunited:
The head, which has been in the Musée Guimet’s collection since 1889, will remain in Cambodia for the next five years, says the museum curator Thierry Zéphir. It will be reattached to the decapitated body of Harihara, which the National Museum of Cambodia acquired in 1944, after the museum’s conservation team—led by Bertrand Porte of the French School of Asian Studies—confirmed they were a match.
The head was discovered in the late 19th century in a ruined temple at Phnom Da by Etienne Aymonier, a French colonial administrator and the first archaeologist to survey the remains of the Khmer empire. The Lyon industrialist Emile Guimet acquired the fragment, along with other Cambodian artefacts shipped to France for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for his ambitious new museum dedicated to the religions of the Far East.
The head of the Harihara statue, which represents the combined gods Vishnu and Shiva, will be on display to the public at the Cambodian national museum today.
Qualitative empirical studies of the illicit antiquities trade have tended to focus either on the supply end, through interviews with looters, or on the demand end, through interviews with dealers, museums and collectors. Trafficking of artefacts across borders from source to market has until now been something of an evidential black hole. Here, we present the first empirical study of a statue trafficking network, using oral history interviews conducted during ethnographic criminology fieldwork in Cambodia and Thailand. The data begin to answer many of the pressing but unresolved questions in academic studies of this particular criminal market, such as whether organized crime is involved in antiquities looting and trafficking (yes), whether the traffic in looted artefacts overlaps with the insertion of fakes into the market (yes) and how many stages there are between looting at source and the placing of objects for public sale in internationally respected venues (surprisingly few).
In a provocatively-titled op-ed in the conversation, Tess Davis and Marc Masurovsky argue that a proposed bill would make American art museums a haven for stolen art by allowing them to “knowingly exhibit stolen art”. Their argument:
On March 25, backed by the art trade lobby, Republican Congressman Steve Chabot reintroduced the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act to the House of Representatives. On its face, HR 4292 asks Congress to “clarify” a small section of the the law. But in truth, the bill goes far beyond mere clarification.
It would instead undo established US law and policy by allowing American cultural institutions to block legal claims to artwork on loan from abroad. Museums would knowingly be able to exhibit stolen and looted art and antiquities. It would leave the rightful owners without any legal recourse to recover their property in US courts.
This bill is just the latest attempt by the less responsible players in the art market to weaken US law. American legal principles have long held that a thief cannot transfer good title. The receipt, possession, and transport of stolen property is a crime. US legislation has carved out a narrow exception to prevent the judicial seizure of art imported for exhibition, but only in very limited circumstances, which it clearly enumerates. HR 4292 would greatly expand this exception by divesting our courts of all jurisdiction over such objects.
Those are strong statements. And it must be said that the text of the proposed bill, at least by my reading, seems to do just the opposite. It makes it easier for Nazi-era claimants to pursue claims against possessors who send their art on temporary exhibition to the U.S.
It clarifies the concept of “commercial activity”; something needed after a 2005 case, Malewicz v
. City of Amsterdam, which saw heirs of Malevich bringing suit against Amsterdam in federal court in Washington D.C.
Since 1965 the Exemption from Judicial Seizure of Cultural Objects Imported for Temporary Exhibition act grants immunity for temporary exhibitions for material being brought into the U.S. if the loan is in the national interest, and the objects are of cultural significance. Rick St. Hilaire and others have supported this clarification. And on its face the clarification seems necessary. Perhaps what Masurovsky and Davis really want is an end to all art immunizations—but they don’t really come out and say that. Instead they accuse Americn Museums of knowingly exhibiting and gathering stolen art. Though there are certainly examples of this on the extreme margins, the examples that the authors use both cut against their underlying position. The Portrait of Wally litigation never involved Federal immunity, only New York State immunity. And the Koh Ker material was not loaned to the United States, it was acquired or up for auction, and the Federal Prosecutors initiated forfeiture actions.
I am not a provenance researcher, and I am not familiar with how in-depth the State Department grants of immunity checks are, but it seems to me the authors have exaggerated their position. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see any example of any museum in North America being able to knowingly exhibit stolen material.
Tom Mashberg reports that Cambodia now has requested objects from others, including:
Denver Art Museum
Cleveland Museum of Art
The Norton Simon,
And of course Sotheby’s which is challenging a federal forfeiture
New York’s Metropolitan Museum announced it would return two other statues. It seems to have encouraged the Cambodians and their advocates to look for other similar material. And that precedent set by the Met may compel these other institutions to return objects. From the NYT piece:
The Met’s two statues represent brothers of Bhima who knelt in attendance during the fight. The Met’s statues were acquired in four pieces from donors 1987 to 1992. Those statues, plus the one from Sotheby’s, are known to have gone through a London art dealer, Spink & Son, in the early 1970s. Cambodian officials say the broken pedestals of all those sculptures were left in the ground by the looters. Norton Simon, who died in 1993, bought the Bhima in 1976 from a Madison Avenue Asian art dealer and gave it to the museum in 1980. “In more than three decades, the foundation’s ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned,” the museum said in a statement. The Sotheby’s statue was shipped to New York in 2010 to be sold at auction by its Belgian owner, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa. Her husband, who has since died, acquired it in 1975 and Sotheby’s estimated its value to be $2 million to $3 million. Experts on antiquities trafficking say teams of bandits used ox carts to trundle their trophies along jungle trails and into Thailand, 15 miles north, during Cambodia’s war years. In their case against Sotheby’s, lawyers for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York say the statue was one of many shipped illicitly from Bangkok to the United States and Europe after 1970. Sotheby’s says the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 and it “denies knowledge that the Duryodhana statue was stolen.” Cambodia’s secretary of state, Chan Tani, said the looting of Koh Ker is especially crushing because its style of statuary exists nowhere else. “They are part of our soul as a nation,” he said, “and they were brutally stolen.”
One aspect I find really intriguing is how Cambodia has seemingly eschewed the Italian approach of offering long term loans and continuing to have a relationship with these institutions. Not sure why that may be, I’d be interested in hearing some ideas below in the comments. Mashberg, Tom. “Cambodia Presses U.S. Museums to Return Antiquities.” The New York Times, May 15, 2013, sec. Arts / Art & Design.
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Today, Ralph Blumenthal reports that the Met has agreed to return two 10th century statues to Cambodia. The Met’s director Thomas Campbell is quoted as saying:
This is a case in which additional information regarding the ‘Kneeling Attendants’ has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today.
The piece reports the statues may have been removed from Cambodia at around the same time the Koh Ker statue was removed, which is the subject of an ongoing forfeiture action by a federal prosecutor. Little information has been reported that I can find on the precise circumstances surrounding the removal of these statues from Cambodia. We know the instabality and conflict taking place in southeast Asia at the time of course. The statues were donated by Douglas Latchford in a series beginning in 1987. The parts of the statues were broken into pieces at some point, and the individual pieces of the figures were donated between 1987-1992. Conservators at the Met reattached the heads and bodies in 1993.
The Met should be congratulated for doing the right thing here with these objects which have such an important connection to Cambodia. This return may also give pause to Sotheby’s, the Norton Simon museum, and others who have objects which were removed from Cambodia during this period.
Blumenthal, Ralph. “The Met to Return Statues to Cambodia.” The New York Times, May 3, 2013, sec. Arts / Art & Design. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/arts/design/the-met-to-return-statues-to-cambodia.html.
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The NYT’s Tom Mashberg reports that Sharon Cohen Levin and Alexander Wilson (two Assistant U.S. Attorney’s) have traveled to Cambodia to examine the site where the 10th Century Koh Ker statue was likely looted in Cambodia. I have no way of knowing whether a trip like this is unusual or not. It seems to me to be a good idea to get some context for the original looting. For those who don’t know, Assistant U.S. attorneys are the Federal government’s prosecutors. And when these folks take on a case, they do so selectively, and generally only if they are confident in a win. These offices across the country have a very high winning percentage in the cases they take on. So it is not much of a surprise that these AUSA’s have decided to make a trip to Cambodia to examine the site itself:
The NYT image of the feet at the temple where the Koh Ker statue was likely looted
A Cambodian government spokesman, Ek Tha, said the delegation that visited the temple included Cambodian and foreign archaeologists. 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. Sotheby’s has been trying to sell the statue, valued at as much as $3 million, on behalf of its Belgian owner since 2011. The United States government says the auction house had reason to suspect that the statue had been stolen, and that it is the rightful property of Cambodia, citing laws governing antiquities adopted when the country was a colony of France. Sotheby’s has said the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 by the owner’s husband, now deceased, who had no reason to suspect that such a sale could be bound by laws set by a government that had long passed from power. In a statement the auction house said the trip by the lawyers “will not change critical weaknesses in the government’s case — most importantly, its reliance on hopelessly ambiguous French colonial decrees.”
Those French decrees aren’t all that ambiguous when considered in light of these two feet without the rest of the statue.
I thought the comments of Rick St. Hilaire were interesting, he argued that this trip was a kind of show of force by the AUSA’s. Not sure if that is true or not, or even if these folks even need to be concerned with a show of force, but it does highlight I think how even remote areas like this temple complex are more closely connected than before, and that makes a forfeiture proceeding like this more likely to proceed.
Tom Mashberg, United States Officials Travel to Cambodia in Statue Case, The New York Times, March 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/arts/design/united-states-officials-travel-to-cambodia-in-statue-case.html (last visited Mar 4, 2013).
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Prosecutors have amended their complaint which seeks to forfeit this Koh Ker Khmer statue. Much of the press coverage focuses on whether the colonial French government or some other legal enactment created ownership rights in the statue before the time it was removed. I don’t have a pacer account and access to these court filings, but based on the reporting it appears prosecutors saw a difficult path to victory in attempting to apply colonial French law to the statue. Instead they are also seeking a more straightforward argument: arguing that the importers of the statue lied on their customs forms. From the NYT:
Prosecutors say that in 2010, when the statue was being imported into the United States, the owner submitted an inaccurate affidavit to American customs officials, at Sotheby’s request, stating the statue was “not cultural property” belonging to a religious site. The government contended in its filing on Friday that both parties knew the statue, a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna, valued at up to $3 million, was stolen when they agreed to ship it from Belgium to New York. The government says it can prove that the statue in fact came from a Khmer Dynasty temple, Prasat Chen, part of a vast and ancient complex called Koh Ker.
If prosecutors can establish these statements were inaccurate, the more difficult question of which law might apply to the statue would be largely irrelevant. This is the same legal principle used when prosecutors successfully forfeited a 4th-century B.C. ancient golden phiale from Michael Steinhardt in 1999. Lying to customs officials is a violation of the law, with its own forfeiture provision. If the prosecutors can establish this, a successful forfeiture seems very likely.