In Cambodia, in a place known as Koh Ker, 60 miles northeast of the Angkor Wat complex, lies another large important urban site. In one of the temples, dating from the mid-900s (thus about 200 years older than the famous sculptures at Angkor Wat) there were a pair of sandstone statues depicting scowling athlete-combatants in intricate headdresses positioned in battle-ready stances flanking one of the entrances. The pair of sculptures ('five feet tall and weighing 250 pounds'), were still in position in old photos of the temple. The site however was one of those plundered in the 1970s amid the chaos of power struggle and genocide, when the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Looters hacked their way into long-inaccessible temples, pillaged priceless antiquities and sold them to Thai and Western collectors.
In 2007 archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau located one of the Koh Ker statues as being on display since 1980 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. The lower portion matches perfectly the pedestal from which it had been detached and which still stands in situ on the site. Norton Simon, an industrialist and collector, reportedly bought this statue in 1975 from a leading Madison Avenue antiquities dealer, William H. Wolff.
Now there is controversy about the other one, offered for sale last year at Sotheby's with a catalog estimate of $2 million to $3 million. The item was withdrawn on the day it was to be sold, March 24, 2011, after a Cambodian official working with the United Nations stated “that this statue was illegally removed from the site”, “illegally removed” from the country and asked Sotheby’s to “facilitate its return.” The Cambodian government also contacted the State Department, prompting an ongoing investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch.
Archaeologists and Cambodian officials say the case of the footless statue is all the more poignant because of the country’s recent history of genocide and plunder, and because researchers have found the very pedestal and feet belonging to the artwork.Sotheby’s says that the seller is a “noble European lady” who acquired it in 1975. Although it was severed from its feet and pedestal, which were left behind at a remote Cambodian archaeological site, Sotheby’s says there is no proof that it was taken illegally. They say that their pre-sales research proved that its unnamed client has had “clear title” to the work since buying it from Spink & Son in London in December 1975. Most inconveniently, or perhaps conveniently, a spokeswoman for Spink said the 1975 records about where the company had obtained the statue were no longer available.
Jane A. Levine, senior vice president and worldwide compliance director for Sotheby’s (and also now CPAC member) says that because the statue was exported “long before the passage of a 1993 Cambodian law that nationalized cultural heritage,” there were no restrictions on its sale or auction. This seems not to be true. There is a 1925 French colonial law declaring all antiquities from Cambodia’s multitude of temples to be “part of the national domain” and “the exclusive property of the state.” This law seems to have remained in force after Cambodian independence in 1953:
Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Cambodia scholar who dug out the law, said it had been analyzed by three French-speaking lawyers conversant in cultural heritage litigation and by [Anne] LeMaistre[, the Unesco representative in Phnom Penh]. All four say it “nationalizes ownership of Cambodian cultural artifacts.” If international legal authorities and American civil courts agree, the law could establish 1925, rather than 1993, as the dividing point after which Cambodian artifacts taken without government permits can be treated as stolen property. Cambodia would still have to prove that the statue was looted after 1925.Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau says the relics were looted in the early 1970s. He said French records in Paris indicate that the statues were in place in 1939, and that the Koh Ker temple was thickly covered by jungle and inaccessible by road until it became a military staging area for Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces.
The New York Times journalists Mashberg and Blumenthalsum up the antiquities trade and the Koh Ker affair thus:
The quiet tussle over the relic reveals the swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities with incomplete or disputed pedigrees. Sellers with a good-faith belief in their ownership rights enter a landscape in which ethics and regulations are evolving, governments are increasingly assertive, and lawyers versed in arcane statutes are as necessary as jungle guides. “We live in a different world, and what was acceptable 50 years ago is no longer so,” said Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Marine Corps Reserve colonel and a lawyer, [...] “Whatever the letter of the law may state, in the end you have to ask yourself, ‘Does the item pass the smell test?’ ” [...] “Every red flag on the planet should have gone off (sic) 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.’ ”[...] When asked whether the statue could have been stolen, Ms. Levine countered that the statue could have been removed any time in its thousand-year history, and said the word stolen was often “used loosely.”I must say, journalists Mashberg and Blumenthal do not seem very sympathetic to Ms Levine's position.
Source: Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal, 'Mythic Warrior Is Held Captive in an International Art Conflict', The New York Times, February 28, 2012
Vignette, two trunkless legs of stone alone in the jungle stand (after Agnes Dherbeys, The New York Times), map by New York Times.