Cambodia has asked the United States for help in recovering a thousand-year-old statue of a warrior that at Sotheby’s in New York and that experts believe was looted amid the bombing of the Vietnam War and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
The statue, which has a catalog estimate of $2 million to $3 million, was pulled from auction at the last minute last March after the Cambodian government complained it had been “illegally removed” from the country.
The Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation. Cambodian officials have held off asking for the piece to be seized while they negotiate with Sotheby’s.
The auction house says that the seller is a “noble European lady” who acquired it in 1975, the year the Khmer Rouge took power following widespread bombing. Although it was severed from its feet and pedestal, which were left at a Cambodian archaeological site, Sotheby’s says there is no proof that it was taken illegally.
Archaeologists and Cambodian officials say the case of the footless statue is all the more poignant because researchers have found the pedestal and feet belonging to the artwork. The discovery was made in Koh Ker, sixty miles northeast of Angkor Wat. Koh Ker, another city in the Khmer empire, was at one time a rival capital to Angkor, which was once the largest city in the preindustrial world, more than three times the area of New York City today.
The sculpture, which is five feet tall and weighs 250 pounds, is one of two athlete-combatants from the mid 900s who come from one of Koh Ker’s temples; it is about 200 years older than the famous sculptures at Angkor Wat.
In 2007, archaeologists matched the other statue, on display since 1980 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, to its similarly detached pedestal.
All clues suggest the work at Sotheby’s was plundered in the 1970s amid the chaos, when looters hacked their way into temples, pillaged antiquities, and sold them to Thai and Western collectors.
“Every red flag on the planet should have gone off when this was offered for sale,” said Herbert V. Larson Jr., a New Orleans lawyer and antiquities expert who teaches legal issues involving smuggled artifacts. “It screams ‘loot.’ ”
To write the catalog entry for the statue, Sotheby’s hired Emma C. Bunker, a co-author of the book “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art.” She called it an unrivaled example of Khmer sculpture, and the lot was on the catalog’s cover. It was withdrawn on the day it was to be sold, March 24, 2011, after a Cambodian official working with the United Nations, Tan Theany, complained in a letter “that this statue was illegally removed from the site” and asked Sotheby’s to “facilitate its return.”
Via The New York Times.