Sotheby’s tried to sell a 1,000-year-old Cambodian statue that was pilfered from an important religious site, even though the famed auction house knew it had been stolen, federal prosecutors say.
In a story filled with intrigue, spies, temple thieves, and the scent of money, federal prosecutors in Manhattan have brought a civil forfeiture action to return the statue to Cambodia after three decades. Sotheby’s had been planning on selling it for $2 to $3 million.
“In April 2010, Sotheby’s imported the Duryodhana into the United States and
made arrangements to sell the statue, despite knowing that it was stolen from Koh Ker,” federal prosecutors say.
The sandstone statue, known as the Duryodhana, was made in the 10th century, and resided at Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia, until it was stolen in the 1960’s or 1970’s during the civil war and genocide which devastated the south Asian nation.
Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer dynasty which ruled the nation for centuries.
Thieves cut the statue away from its pedestal, leaving only the feet. In 1975, a private collector in Belgium bought statue from a British auction house. In March, 2010 the collector’s family made a deal with Sotheby’s to sell the statue, and the auction house brought it to New York.
“In March 2011, immediately before the planned auction of the Duryodhana, the Cambodian Government asked Sotheby’s to pull the statue from auction. Sotheby’s withdrew the statue from the auction, but it remains in their possession,” federal prosecutors say.
How did Sotheby’s know it had been stolen? Well, six months before a planned auction, the house reached out to an expert in ancient south Asian art and asked him to write a blurb about the statue’s importance, records show.
“The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker,” the expert wrote. “I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the statue publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances … I don’t think Sotheby’s wants this kind of potential problem.”
Despite that warning, Sotheby’s pressed ahead with the auction. It was only when the Cambodian government logged an official protest in March, 2011, that the auction of the statue was cancelled.