Cambodia Vs. Sotheby's In A Battle Over Antiquities A 1,000-year-old statue, a vine-and-moss-covered temple complex and a country's turbulent history lie at the heart of a legal battle pitting the Cambodian government against Sotheby's auction house. Officials say the statue was looted from an ancient Khmer temple; Sotheby's says that's not provable.

Cambodia Vs. Sotheby's In A Battle Over Antiquities

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Now to a story that involves Cambodia, an auction house and a-thousand-year-old statue. Sotheby's in New York wants to put the statue up for auction, but Cambodia claims it was looted from a temple built by an ancient empire. The case has gone to court in the U.S. and a ruling is expected soon.

In the meantime, NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to find out more about this disputed work of art.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: White cows graze amid the ruins of Koh Ker. In 921 A.D., with the Khmer Empire in control of most of mainland Southeast Asia, a succession struggle broke out. And King Jayavarman IV constructed a new and magnificent capital, about 50 miles northeast of the old one in Angkor Wat.


KUHN: Jayavarman IV died some two decades later. His successor moved the capital back to Angkor Wat and the jungle swallowed Koh Ker. Trees toppled giant stone pillars, vines crept over floral decorations, and moss carpeted everything.

Behind the Prasat Chen temple, archaeologist Phin Samnang descends into a small pit and pulls away a plastic tarpaulin.


PHIN SAMNANG: (Through translator) This is the site of the statue that is now in the auction house in America. Two pedestals were found here. And there were seven more around them.

KUHN: The life-size statues depict a scene from the Hindu epic the Mahabarata. The warriors Duryodhana and Bhima face off in battle as their followers look on. Phin Samnang says the missing statues fit the pedestals perfectly, proving that the statues were looted from this temple.

SAMNANG: (Through translator) We must not stay silent. We must reclaim the statues by any and all legal means. If we don't take action, it means we do not love our antiquities, which have been looted and taken overseas.

KUHN: Anne LeMaistre is the Cambodia-based representative for the U.N.'s cultural organization, UNESCO. She is advising the Cambodian government on the Koh Ker statues. She says that while a lot of Angkor-era artwork was carved on walls as bas reliefs, Duryodhana and the other statues literally leap out at you.

ANNE LEMAISTRE: You can see he has three little toes, which are outside of the pedestal, which is in fact an incredible novelty in terms of sculpture. Even the Greek, I think, were not conceiving this freedom of sculpting things out of the frame.

KUHN: Sotheby's canceled the auction of the statue last year after Cambodia's government objected. The auction house has filed a motion in court to prevent seizure of the statue. Sotheby's declined to be interviewed, but provided documents arguing that Cambodia has no physical evidence of exactly when over the last 1,000 years the statue was looted. Anne LeMaistre says there is at least clear circumstantial evidence.

LEMAISTRE: There is an evidence that all this looting occurred at the end of the '60s. The Duryodhana statue was looted from Cambodia because this site was looted at the same time, and several pieces were found on the art market at the same time, for the first time.

KUHN: The Cambodian government has now asked for the return of the matching Bhima statue, which is in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. Two kneeling figures from the same group are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Sotheby's argues that for decades, Cambodia made no mention of any of these statues, thereby forfeiting any claim of ownership. Soeun Kong, a Cambodian official in charge of the antiquities at Koh Ker, says Cambodia began to pursue the artworks as soon as it could.

SOEUN KONG: (Through translator) Our country is just recovering from civil war, and most of our Angkor-era temples are deep in the jungle. Some remain to be discovered. Recently, we have received information that some sculptures have appeared on the market, and we are working to get them back.

KUHN: Whoever prevails in court, the trends are clear: archaeologically rich countries like Cambodia are becoming more assertive about reclaiming lost artifacts. Museums portray themselves as custodians of the world's cultural heritage, but they're increasingly careful to avoid buying artworks that may have been looted. A century ago, there was hardly any market for Khmer art. Today, foreign collectors see it as valuable, and more importantly, many Cambodians see it as priceless. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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