Report that Federal Agents will seize Khmer Statue from Sotheby’s

It looks like the attention drawn to Sotheby’s auction of this Koh Ker statue will result in Federal seizure of the statue:

Federal agents in New York on Wednesday moved to seize a thousand-year-old Cambodian statue from Sotheby’s, alleging in a civil complaint that Sotheby’s had put the 10th-century figure of a mythological warrior up for auction despite knowing that it had been stolen from a temple. Investigators said the sandstone statue, whose return is being sought by Cambodia and which is valued at $2 million to $3 million, would be impounded on Thursday by agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security. The statue, consigned to Sotheby’s for sale by a Belgian collector, had been set for auction in New York in March 2011 but was abruptly pulled from the market at the last minute after Cambodia claimed ownership. 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.

With evidence that Sotheby’s was told the statue had been looted, the Federal agents have a powerful piece of evidence they did not have in the Ka Nefer Nefer case. I would expect the unnamed Belgian collector who put the statue up for consignment to consider relinquishing the statue quickly. If it was purchased in good faith, he or she has a good claim against the dealer they bought it from. How long new before the Norton Simon is pressured to return its version of the statue?

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Ancient Cambodian Statue Is Seized From Sotheby’s, The New York Times, April 4, 2012, (last visited Apr 4, 2012).

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Cambodia Disputing a Koh Ker statue up for auction at Sotheby’s

The disputed limestone Koh Ker statue

Cambodia is asking for assistance from the U.S. government in repatriating a limestone statue which was likely looted during the Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge era. Jane Levine, compliance director for Sotheby’s argues that “there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects”. Here is mine.

The statue has considerable value, its pre-sale auction price was estimated at between $2-3 million. That estimate will likely be considerably less after the report in the New York times, detailing the dubious history of the object. Sotheby’s claims the object was acquired by a “noble European lady” in 1975. Hardly a complete history of the object, and hardly enough to invoke the protections of good faith. The absence of information should not confer the benefits of a good faith purchase. Sotheby’s argues the burden should be placed on Cambodia. I wonder though if the blunt reality of two feet without a body might lead a thinking person to a different conclusion. No museum can ethically acquire this object. Though the Norton Simon has a similar statue, also without feet, no word yet on whether Cambodia may seek the repatriation of that statue as well.

I would expect if a resolution between Sotheby’s and Cambodia cannot be reached that the government consider using its forfeiture powers on the grounds the statue was under the ownership of Cambodia after a 1925 French colonial law declaring objects in Cambodia to be the exclusive property of the state.

Should the forfeiture proceeding be declined, I would urge Cambodia or its lawyers to consider using a civil action using as a precedent the English case, Bumper Development Corp. v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [1991] 1 WLR 1362. That case successfully achieved the repatriation of an object taken from an Indian temple, but it was the temple itself was given legal rights as a party. Perhaps there is a legal personality in Cambodia which might offer a similar connection to this statue.

    A Pedestal in Cambodia, which might be the base
  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue, The New York Times, February 28, 2012, (last visited Feb 28, 2012).

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US Returns Angkorian Sculptures to Cambodia

 The United States returned seven sculptures today which had been smuggled out of Cambodia.  The statues were recovered in Los Angeles in 2008.  They objects include two heads of Buddha, a bas-relief, and also an engraved plinth.  I’m unable to find any details about the seizure at present, but these returns may be tied to the investigation of Galleries and Museums in California in early 2008

  1. AFP: US returns stolen Angkorian sculptures to Cambodia, AFP (2010), (last visited Jun 17, 2010).
  2. The Associated Press: US returns 7 stolen ancient Cambodian sculptures, AP (2010), (last visited Jun 17, 2010).
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Protection, Preservation and Commodification

Italy has been making tremendous strides of late in securing the return of objects. A major tenet underlying these successful repatriation claims has been the idea that by cutting off buyers of illicitly excavated objects, and by ensuring objects are not entering major museum collections, the demand for the illicit trade will be substantially reduced.

This is an important policy shift, and has unquestionably altered the cultural property policy landscape. However I think its worth asking if nations like Italy are following through with their aspirations, and if everything is being done to preserve sites and archaeological context. It stands to reason that more nations of origin will be adopting this Italian strategy, but we should ask ourselves if perhaps these efforts are looking at only one part of the problem.

In fact as I tried to point out last week, it looks like more nations of origin will be banding together and attempting perhaps to negotiate as a bloc, in much the same way that OPEC has dominated the world’s supply of oil. TIME Magazine’s Richard Lacayo in his “Looking Around” blog responded to my assertion by rightly pointing out that “OPEC is powerful because it sits on top of a natural resource that, at the end of the day, the world requires. Antiquities source nations have…..antiquities.”

He’s right of course that there isn’t nearly the same demand for antiquities as for a commodity like oil, but nations of origin do need market states in a number of ways which aren’t often fully appreciated. Italy, though it was very forceful in its recent negotiations with the Getty, the Met, and the MFA Boston chose not to use all of the legal ammunition it perhaps could have, and even reached very generous reciprocal loan agreements in exchange for the repatriated objects. The obvious question is: why be so accommodating if there were such powerful ethical principles and photographic evidence which called for the return of these objects?

The answer I think is that these nations need good relationships with other nations, and one of the major reasons is the enormous tourist dollars visitors from America (and elsewhere) can bring to these nations. Capitalizing on this tourism can have a heavy price however.
Adam L. Freeman has an excellent article on Bloomberg in which he details the struggle Italian authorities have had in properly caring for Pompeii (pictured above), “Chunks of frescoes depicting life in the Roman city are missing, carried away by visitors or eroded by the elements. Graffiti is gouged into walls. Tourists ignore signs forbidding flash photography as they take pictures of erotic designs inside the Lupanare, an ancient brothel.” This all comes as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attempts to cut expenditures, with the Culture Ministry likely to receive heavy cuts after the former government cut protection by 20 percent this year already. In fact, Italy has declared a state of emeregency for the ancient city and appointed Renato Profili former head policeman for Naples to oversee the situation.
Profili is quoted “It’s obvious that there is an emergency in a country like Italy where there’s so much to protect and so little money to do it.” This despite the 33 million euros generated by all the tourists who visit the city.

Other nations are having similar struggles. Robert Turnbull a few weeks ago in the New York Times details a museum/retail mall development in Cambodia near Angkor Wat, pictured here.

There aren’t easy answers of course, but merely returning objects to nations of origins won’t by itself protect sites, heritage and context.

The valuable tourist dollars which these sites bring in can help alleviate the situation, but it also carries with it the distasteful tradeoffs, such as the commodification of heritage, and the wear-and-tear which millions of visitors will always cause. Hopefully nations of origin will be able to move beyond the dramatic repatriations, which are a necessary step, and continue to work to preserve the sites themselves.

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