Cambodia Is Seeking 2nd Statue

Judge cast doubt on whether the government could prevail in its effort to seize the work

Published on 8 October 2012

Author(s): New York Times/RALPH BLUMENTHAL

Type:  News Originally published 28 September 2011

The Cambodian government has asked the United States to help it recover a 10th-century Khmer sandstone statue from the Norton Simon Museum in California. It says the work was looted from a Cambodian temple complex during the country’s political upheavals in the 1970s.

The request was revealed by prosecutors in federal district court in Manhattan on Thursday, during hearings involving a matching statue that the United States government has sought to impound from Sotheby’s. The sculptures, each five feet tall and 600 pounds, depict mythical warriors. The one at the Norton Simon, in Pasadena, Calif., has been on display since 1980, and although Cambodian authorities have long known it was there, they had not sought its return until now.

In the case involving the Sotheby’s statue, on Thursday, Judge George B. Daniels cast doubt on whether the government could prevail in its effort to seize the work, based on the filings it has made.

“This isn’t the strongest case of knowledge of stolen property and ownership by clear and unambiguous language,” Judge Daniels said. He said the government had “significant hurdles to overcome,” and that he would rule in 30 to 60 days on a motion by Sotheby’s lawyers to dismiss the case.

On Friday a Cambodian government spokesman confirmed the request for repatriating the statue at the Norton Simon. “We have asked the United States government to help bring both statues back home,” said the spokesman, Phay Siphan, by phone from Phnom Penh. (The Cambodian government has also requested the return of two life-size statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Leslie C. Denk, a spokeswoman for the Norton Simon, said on Friday, “We have not been contacted by the Cambodian government.” But the museum had earlier released a statement acknowledging that the Sotheby’s case had “spurred interest in a similar Khmer statue owned by  the Norton Simon Art Foundation.”

It said it purchased the statue on Sept. 13, 1976, from the New York dealer William H. Wolff, that the work had been shown to representatives of the Cambodian government, and that “in more than three decades of ownership, the foundation’s ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned.”

According to art historians, the two sandstone statues once stood facing each other at the Prasat Chen temple complex in Koh Ker, some 60 miles northeast of the more famous Hindu temples at Angkor Wat. When and how they were removed remains in dispute. But their sheared-off feet remain on site.

According to court papers, the Sotheby’s statue was purchased in 1975 from the British auction house Spink by the husband of a Belgian woman identified only as Ms. Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, for the equivalent today of about $900,000. The statue was scheduled to be auctioned in March 2011, with an estimate of $2 million to $3 million, but was pulled at the last minute after Cambodian officials sent a letter saying it had been “illegally removed.”  It remains in limbo at Sotheby’s.

After an investigation by American customs agents, the United States government filed a civil suit against Sotheby’s in April, seeking to seize the statue as being knowingly illegally imported. Sotheby’s fended off immediate forfeiture with a court challenge in April, augmented by later filings that questioned any proof that the statue had been looted or that clear Cambodian laws applied.

In court on Thursday, Sotheby’s lawyer, Peter G. Neiman, also questioned why Cambodia had never previously sought the California statue, and cited a letter in which a Cambodian official asserted that the work “now belongs to the Norton Simon.”

But Sarah Paul, a government lawyer, said Cambodia had not relinquished its claim on that statue. “We are investigating before filing a forfeiture complaint,” she said.

A second prosecutor, Alexander Wilson, said the government was “continuing to look” into how the Norton Simon obtained the statue.

Tom Mashberg contributed reporting.

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