Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Feds on the hunt

The Duryodhana statue (left) and its sister statue, Bhima, which is on display at the Norton Simon Museum
Federal agents in the United States are off to Sotheby's to impound a 10th century statue that everyone and their dog knows was stolen from the Koh Ker complex of temples in Cambodia, but proving it in court - ie. coming up with the exact date when it was stolen, etc - may be a tricky one to resolve. Nevertheless, the whole episode has put the searchlight firmly into the public arena again and should leave a lot more than egg on the face of auction houses that have been selling off pieces of Khmer culture for decades, claiming that they were legally saleable items. Of course, that's pure bullshit and just a smokescreen to cover their asses. These items were stolen, whisked away under cover of darkness, usually in collusion with shady military figures on the Cambodian side, and found their way into private collections around the globe. It's when those items come up for sale, is when the attention of the press and experts goes viral. The federal government’s claim is that the statue was looted during the Cambodian civil war and rests partly on findings by a French archaeologist, Eric Bourdonneau, who reported that the work had been seen in place as recently as the 1960s, that a road built after 1965 provided the first easy access to the site, and that the piece did not appear on the art market until its first known sale in Britain in 1975. Even more damning, is that the feet of the statue are still in situ at Prasat Chen in the Koh Ker complex. Sotheby's counter claim that the seller had clear provenance for the item. Well they would, wouldn't they. I've seen papers filed by the Feds that indicate Sotheby's knew exactly what they were doing but the dollar signs proved too lucrative. They were warned off making a splash about it by an expert scholar, but proceeded anyway. More fool them. The scholar also revealed some other interesting information which may cause a ripple or two here in Cambodia. The name of the statue is Duryodhana, and its sister statue, Bhima, from the same temple, is currently on display at the Norton Simon Museum in California. The scholar suggested that Cambodia would not be seeking repatriation of that item, despite asking for the one from Sotheby's, which if true, is a very sad state of affairs.

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