Critical Analysis: Sotheby’s Faces Accusations in Legal Battle Over Cambodian Khmer Art

These matching, thousand-year-old statues were likely looted during Cambodia's civil war.
These matching, thousand-year-old statues were likely looted during Cambodia's civil war. (NYULocal)

The international auction house, Sotheby’s, continues to thrive even in a down market. Sotheby’s recently set a record night of sales totaling over $375 million, which included works by Warhol, Bacon, Rothko, and Pollock. Despite their successful night, Sotheby’s currently faces a legal battle with the government of Cambodia over a one thousand-year-old sandstone Khmer statue, standing five feet tall and weighing 250 pounds. Sotheby’s removed the Cambodian statue from the auction catalog in 2011 but it remains in dispute in the U.S. District Court of New York.

Looters sliced the feet off the Khmer statue at the ankles to separate it from the base, which is believed to be from the site of the Koh Ker complex located near the border of Thailand. Prosecutors have now accused Sotheby’s and the statue’s owner of covering up the truth of the provenance. Sotheby’s asserts, however, that there is no proof its Belgian owner acquired the statue illegally.

These matching, thousand-year-old statues were likely looted during Cambodia’s civil war.

Sotheby’s estimated the Hindu warrior statue to be worth between $2 to $3 million dollars and is actually one of a set of identical pieces. The Cambodian government would like the other statue, which resides in Pasadena, California’s Norton Simon Museum, to be returned as well. Experts believe the looters took the statue in the 1970s during Cambodia’s turbulent civil war. Cambodia initially tried to negotiate with Sotheby’s to purchase the statue for $1 million through a Hungarian buyer, who would then present it back to Cambodia as a charitable gift. Unfortunately, a year of negotiating failed and Sotheby’s filed a motion to prevent the U.S. government from seizing the statue.

Sotheby’s believes Cambodia forfeited their right to reclaim the statue because they waited too long to request the return of their art. But many of the looted temples are deep in the jungles, the country has been on the long road to recovery, and therefore Cambodia was only recently able to account for the missing works. Some critics believe that Eastern artifacts should remain in Western museums, so that the Western world can protect and preserve humanity’s world culture; however, allowing the countries, like Cambodia, to repossess their cultural property will permit them to rebuild their cultural heritage and history as they move forward.

The government believes Sotheby’s told the current owner to lie to customs officials because they both knew it was stolen. Furthermore, prosecutors believe there is a trail of provenance to follow. They believe the looters first sold the statue to a Thai intermediary, who then sold it to an unnamed “collector” who then sold it to London dealer, Spink & Son. The Belgian collector then bought it in London in 1975 and his widow tried to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction in 2011. Prosecutors believe Sotheby’s purposefully left out the name of the “collector” to cover up the details of the title’s chronology.

Sotheby’s responded that the government is simply trying to tar their reputation with false allegations. Nevertheless, even if Sotheby’s did not know at the time that the statue was stolen property, they do know now, and should take steps to help return the item back to its rightful place. Instead, Sotheby’s argues that it may be impossible to pinpoint exactly when the statue left Cambodia making it difficult to know which laws would apply. However, the federal government produced witnesses, which have said the statue was last seen in its original place in the 1960s, yet Sotheby’s maintains that there is no evidence of when the statue left Cambodia. Sotheby’s also counters that modern Cambodia did not have clear possession of the artifacts since it was a French protectorate until 1953. In September, a federal judge also expressed doubt that Cambodia could establish clear ownership.

The outcome of this international dispute may have impacts not only on U.S. foreign relations with Cambodia but also future policies affecting cultural property ownership. Stolen artifacts are nothing new in the art world, from Nazi plunders of art in WWII to confiscations of antiquities in Iraq in 2003. In addition, this month an art heist took place in South Africa that involved the taking of $2 million worth of art. Police recovered four of the five pieces under a bench in a cemetery, but the last piece is still missing. This last work of art may go underground for years before resurfacing on the market. Museum directors, art collectors, and auction houses should remain vigilant in their provenance research and avoid buying stolen art to steer clear of getting caught up in legal battles similar to the current dispute between Sotheby’s and Cambodia.

Kristen Pariser is a 2L and Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.