Sotherby's agrees to return 10th century statue to Cambodia | Asia Pacific

Sotherby's agrees to return 10th century statue to Cambodia

Sotherby's agrees to return 10th century statue to Cambodia

Updated 20 December 2013, 13:56 AEDT

A major international auction house has agreed to return an ancient statue to Cambodia, in a case described as a shift in attitudes towards antiquities.

The sculpture of a 10th Century Hindu warrior was broken off at the ankles from the Koh Ker temple complex in Cambodia and ended up in the collection of a Belgium woman.

Two years ago Sotherby's tried to sell the artefact, but the Cambodian Government objected and since then, the United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan has been helping Cambodia argue its case.

Reporter: Liam Cochrane

Speakers: Rick St Hilaire, former prosecutor and Adjunct Professor of Cultural Property Law at Plymouth State University College; Chan Tani, Secretary of State for the Cambodian Council of Ministers

COCHRANE: It's been describes as a "bare-knuckled court battle", a fight for ownership slugged out in US courts, with an ancient sandstone warrior as the prize.

There was never much doubt the statue had been taken from the Koh Ker complex... it was after all, snapped off at the ankles, with the feet remaining in place in front of the ruined temple.

But the laws around the ownership of antiquities are complex and sometimes disputed.

HILAIRE: Sotheby's was essentially arguing the law and the US Government was arguing the facts.

COCHRANE: Rick St Hilaire is a former prosecutor and Adjunct Professor of Cultural Property Law at Plymouth State University College. He wasn't involved directly in the case but has watched closely as both sides engaged in a determined - and at times bitter - fight over the past two years. Here's how it went...


COCHRANE: The US Attorney claimed the statue was looted during the Seventies, as Cambodia was engulfed in civil war. It accused Sotherby's of knowing about the item's disputed chain of ownership but choosing to bring the stone warrior to the US to sell, regardless.

Sotherby's denied the accusation, saying the evidence surrounding the statue's alleged theft was weak and that French colonial laws protecting Cambodia's cultural property did not apply in the 1970s.

Rick St Hilaire.

HILAIRE: I think what changed is a motion that was filed with the court that asked the court to dismiss this case. And the judge says, 'No, I am not going to dismiss this case.' And I am sure that is something that helped resolved the particular matter.

COCHRANE: The resolution, though, was no knockout - it was more of a compromise.

Sotheby's agreed to send the 220 kilogram statue back to Cambodia within the next 90 days and to pay the freight costs. The owner will receive no compensation for what was valued at $2 million.

In return, the US Attorney's office will withdraw allegations that Sotheby's knowingly tried to sell an artefact of dubious provenance.

Chan Tani, Secretary of State, Cambodian Council of Ministers says his country is happy with the outcome.

CHAN: We're so grateful to the US district attorney in New York.

COCHRANE: And does Cambodia now have plans for more activities to try to get statues back from other countries?

CHAN: Oh definitely. We lost so many statue during out long internal wars, civil wars. So we need to get those back, as many as we can. Because those are part of our culture. As you know no nation can live without culture and we are trying to rebuild our culture.

HILAIRE: What Cambodia displayed in this particular situation represents a shift from being quiet and understated to being very aggressive and seeking partnerships with the United States. Essentially they're putting a sharp point on the spear and what they've done is they've sent the message that they will try to get cultural artefacts, taken from Cambodia, repatriated.

Cultural heritage law expert Rick St Hilaire says there may be broader implications from the Cambodian case.

HILAIRE: We know that cultural heritage is under attack from looters, particularly during times of war and unrest. And we see today whether its disruption in Egypt or war in Syria, you have antiquities being looted, being trafficked. So its very important to pay attention to these particular issues and and Cambodia is essentially putting its two cents in and saying, 'There's a problem!' It raises the problem of due diligence and when collecting cultural objects, questions must be asked... These ancient cultural artefacts certainly originate from times and places before finding their way into modern collections. So the next time you go to a museum or if you're a dealer in antiquities, ask where did this object come from and how did it get here?

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